Category Archives: Baptist

A Baptist minister discovers the Eucharist: Part 6 of 9


-by Ken Hensley

Miraculous Meals in the Old Testament

Now this whole concept was new to me.

It shouldn’t have been. After all, miraculous meals are a recurring theme in the Bible. Again and again, in both the Old and New Testaments, we find stories in which God’s people are fed through some supernatural means.

There’s the manna from heaven (Exodus 16) and water from the rock (Exodus 17). There’s the time when the Lord sent ravens to feed Elijah as he hiding in the wilderness (1 Kings 17).

And then there are a number of stories in which a small amount of food is miraculously multiplied to feed God’s people.

In 1 Kings 17, for instance, the prophet Elijah visits the home of a poor widow and her son. He says to her, “Make me something to eat!” She responds, “As the Lord lives, all I have is a little meal in my jar and a little oil in my vessel. I’m gathering some sticks right now to make something for me and my son before we die!”

Elijah instructs her to first make a cake and bring it to him and then to feed herself and her son, adding: “For thus says the Lord the God of Israel, ‘The jar of meal shall not be spent, and the vessel of oil shall not fail, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.’”

And it happened. Her little jar of meal and vessel of oil miraculously continued to produce until it was no longer needed.

In 2 Kings chapter 4 we find a similar account. This time it’s Elisha the prophet meeting a woman who explains that her husband has died, that she’s in tremendous debt, and that her two children are about to be sold as slaves to pay the debt. She informs Elisha that all she has to her name is “one little jar of oil.”

Elisha immediately instructs her to “Go and borrow empty vessels from all your neighbors. Find as many as you can and bring them here!” He then tells her to fill the vessels from her “one little jar.” Miraculously, the oil doesn’t stop flowing until she has filled every vessel to overflowing and run out of vessels to fill.

Later on in that same chapter of 2 Kings, another miraculous multiplication of food takes place.

In this case Elisha is sitting with one hundred of his disciples and they’re hungry. One of his servants has some loaves of barley and a few ears of grain. Here’s the passage:

And Elisha said, “Give to the men, that they may eat.” But his servant said, “How am I to set this before a hundred men?” So he repeated, “Give them to the men, that they may eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” So he set it before them. And they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord (2 Kings 4:42-44).

This is a recurring theme in the Old Testament and a theme that continues right on into the New Testament.

Miracle Meals in the New Testament

It’s hard to read the account of the woman who borrowed all the vessels from her neighbors and filled them to overflowing from her “one little jar” without being reminded of a similar miracle that would take place centuries later, this time at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, when Jesus would command the servants to bring six stone water jars each containing twenty or thirty gallons and “fill the jars with water” so that he might transform the water into wine.

It’s hard to read the account of Elisha multiplying the barley loaves and ears of grain to feed one hundred hungry disciples without thinking about the time Jesus took a few loaves and fish and multiplied them to feed thousands of men, women and children who had come to listen to him speak and had become hungry.

In fact, the parallels between these Old and New Testament stories are clear and fascinating.

Elijah has compassion on the poor starving widow and Elisha on his famished disciples. Likewise, when Jesus sees the crowds he says, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat; and I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way” (Matt 15:32)

Elisha’s servant objects when the prophet suggests that he feed the men: “How am I to set this before a hundred men?” (2 Kings 4:43). Likewise, the disciples object when Jesus suggests that they feed the multitude: “Where are we to get bread enough in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” (Matt 15:33).

In the end, Elijah and Elisha take whatever small amount the people have and miraculously multiply it to meet the need. Jesus does the same: “’How many loaves do you have?’ Jesus asked. ‘Seven,’ they replied, ‘and a few small fish’ (Matt 15:34).

And commanding the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied (Matt 15:35-37).

When our Lord changed water into wine and miraculously multiplied loaves and fish to feed the crowds, I’m convinced that he was consciously reenacting the miraculous meals of Moses, Elijah and Elisha, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus was saying, “One greater than these has come!”

But was he also looking forward when he performed these miracles? Was the feeding of the multitudes the end of this Scriptural pattern of miraculous meals, or was there more to come? This is something St. Paul’s association of the Eucharist with supernatural food and drink made me wonder about. It’s something the early Church’s beliefs about the Eucharist made me wonder about. If anything was clear, it was that the early Church viewed the Eucharist as a miraculous meal.

The Last Supper

As an Evangelical Protestant, when I thought about the Last Supper, two things primarily came to mind: the Passover and the institution of the New Covenant.

By choosing to share this Last Supper during the celebration of the Passover meal, Jesus was surely revealing himself to be the true Passover Lamb, whose death would free his people from their sins. “This is my body which is broken for you.”

But he was also announcing the institution of the New Covenant. In Exodus 24 Moses sprinkled blood on the altar on Mt. Sinai and instituted the Old Covenant with these words: “This is the blood of the covenant.” When Jesus raised the chalice at the Last Supper and said, “This is my blood of the covenant,” he was deliberately echoing Moses’ words. Jesus was announcing the institution of the New Covenant—this time in his own blood.

The Last Supper was patterned after these sacrificial meals. This much is clear.

But there seems to be more, here. The Last Supper also seems to be patterned after Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes.

In the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, whether in Matthew, Mark or Luke, the actions of Jesus are described in a very specific manner. As the disciples are reclining at table (Luke 22:14), Jesus “takes” bread, he “blesses” it, he “breaks” it, and he “gives” it to his disciples (See Matt 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19).

Fine. So what? Well, it turns out that in every account of Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes—again, whether looking at Matthew, Mark or Luke—Jesus’ actions are described in exactly the same way—in fact, using the very same words.

Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass; and taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied (Matt 14:19-20)

Here’s the point: It appears that Gospel authors have for some reason consciously patterned their description of the Last Supper in terms of Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes. The two events are being connected. Even the crowds being commanded to sit down on the grass is echoed in the disciplines reclining at the table.

Whether the feeding of the multitudes is seen as somehow looking forward to the Last Supper, or the Last Supper is seen as somehow looking backward to the feeding of the multitudes, the two are connected in the minds of the Gospel writers.

Conclusion

Certainly, at this point, there were more questions than answers for this Baptist minister.

But the questions were provocative: Why did the Apostles draw this connection between the Last Supper and the feeding of the multitudes? Did they conceive of the Last Supper as some kind of meal in which a miracle was taking place?

And what about the Eucharist, to which the Last Supper points? From the earliest centuries of Christian history, the Eucharist was treated as the center of Christian worship and, essentially, as theNew Testament fulfillment of the miracle of the manna, the miracles of Elijah and Elisha, our Lord’s multiplication of the loaves and the fish. Is there truth to this? Is something happening in the Eucharist that is like what happened when Jesus fed the multitudes?

Is the Eucharist a miraculous meal?”

Love,
Matthew

A Baptist minister discovers the Eucharist: Part 5 of 9


-by Ken Hensley

For not as common bread or common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food that has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus. – Justin Martyr

My journey to the Eucharist began when I read the early Church Fathers—really read them—for the first time and found myself faced with the reality that what theologians refer to as the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist appeared to have been the doctrine of Christianity from the beginning.

A few of these earliest witnesses—mainly bishops and apologists—were either direct disciples of the Apostles or disciples of disciples of the Apostles. All of them that described the Eucharist described it in terms that made it abundantly clear to me that for them the Eucharist was not a simple meal of remembrance and proclamation.

For them, it was a miraculous meal. St. Ignatius, bishop of the Church in Antioch, who as a young man had been personally instructed in the faith by the Apostle John speaks of the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality.”

This had been the doctrine of the early Church, and it continued to be the doctrine of the Church, in both the East and the West, essentially until the time of Reformation in the 16th century.

Discovering this was step one for me.

Step two was returning to the New Testament, re-examining everything the New Testament writers had to say about the Eucharist (or Lord’s Supper) and finding that it was entirely consistent with what the early Church seems to have believed.

Now, given my commitment at the time to the foundational Protestant principle of sola Scriptura—that we look to Scripture alone to authoritatively determine Christian doctrine—if I had discovered that the New Testament teaching on the Eucharist contradicted belief in the Real Presence, I might have been able to ignore what I had seen in the writings of the early Church Fathers. After all, it didn’t cross my mind back then to think that the faith of the early Church, as revealed in her doctrine, worship and practice, might provide compelling evidence of what the Apostles had actually taught their Christian communities.

But this didn’t happen.

I began by looking at the key passage on the topic in St. Paul’s writings: 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. Not only did I find nothing there that contradicted the “miraculous meal” conception of the early Church, there was at least one passage that seemed to lend positive support to the notion. I’m talking about 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, where the Apostle draws a direct line between the Eucharist and the supernatural food and drink provided the Israelites in their journey through the wilderness.

Although Paul’s message to the believers in Corinth is implied, it is nevertheless quite clear: The Israelites were baptized into Moses and received supernatural food and drink from God and yet did not make it to the Promised Land. You Corinthian Christians need to beware. You likewise may have been baptized into Jesus Christ. You may have received your own supernatural food and drink (the Eucharist!), but none of this guarantees that you will inherit the Promised Land of heaven if you choose to imitate the Israelites in their unbelief and disobedience.

It seems that when Paul thought about the Lord’s Supper, while he certainly thought about remembering Christ’s death and proclaiming it (1 Cor 11:23-26), he also thought about supernatural food and drink, manna falling from heaven to feed God’s people and water springing up from a rock to quench their thirst.”

Love,
Matthew

A Baptist minister discovers the Eucharist: Part 4 of 9


-by Ken Hensley

“With all of this in mind, I did not feel that I could easily dismiss the witness of the early Church. I could not treat that witness as though it didn’t matter and shouldn’t carry weight in my thinking.

At the same time, I was eager to reexamine the New Testament passages that touched on the Lord’s Supper. Was there anything in the New Testament that might somehow demonstrate that the early Church’s view of the Eucharist, regardless of how long or unanimously it was held, was in error? Was there anything in the New Testament I had not seen before and that might support the early Church’s view?

First Corinthians 10 and 11

The passage that immediately came to mind was 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, the only passage in all the New Testament Epistles where the Lord’s Supper is discussed at some length.

The results were more than interesting.

1. It seemed clear to me that for Paul the Lord’s Supper was about remembering and proclaiming the Lord’s death — a point on which all Christians agree.

No dispute. Paul states this clearly in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given the thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. 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.

So far, so good.

2. It also seems clear to me that when Paul in 1 Cor 10:16-17 identified the bread and the cup with the body and blood of Christ he was not speaking literally but figuratively.

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (1 Cor 10:16-17).

Now the Greek word translated “participation” here is koinonia. It simply means “to share in” or “to participate in.” When we celebrate the Eucharist, Paul says, we are sharing in the body and blood of Christ.

Because of this, Paul could be saying that when we receive the bread and the cup we are sharing literally in the body and blood of Christ. And while I have come as a Catholic to believe this to be true, I do not believe Paul is saying that in this passage.

If you read further to verses 18-21, Paul compares this “sharing,” this “participation” in Christ with those who might “share” or “participate” in the altars of demons. He does not want his readers, he says, to be “partners with demons” (same Greek word koinonia). He goes on to say “You cannot partake (koinonia) of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” Well, since I doubt very much that Paul means that when one eats pagan sacrifices he is consuming literal demons, it makes the most sense to think that what Paul is saying in vs. 16-17 is that when we share in the bread and the cup we are uniting ourselves to Christ, we are expressing our partnership with Christ.

Again, something all Christians believe.

3. But then, it also seemed to me that Paul thought of the Lord’s Supper as as in some sense parallel to the supernatural food and drink with which the Israelites were sustained in the desert.

Now this was something of a revelation to me.

I had read 1 Corinthians 10:1-6 many times. It’s the classic passage where St. Paul uses Old Covenant Israel’s experience in the wilderness as an illustration of what will happen to his New Covenant readers in Corinth — if they allow themselves to fall into sin again and fail to persevere in the obedience of faith.

I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things are examples for us, not to desire evil as they did.

Even though the Israelites had been baptized into Moses; even though they were given supernatural food and drink to sustain them in their journey through the wilderness—the manna from heaven, the water from the rock—many of them never made it to the Promised Land.

There’s the example of Old Covenant Israel. OK, so what’s Paul’s message to the believers in Corinth? What is Paul saying to them by raising the illustration of Old Covenant Israel?

Here’s the implied message: “Brothers and sisters, you may have received your own baptism. You may have your own supernatural food and drink. But as with Israel in the wilderness, none of this guarantees that you will make it to the end of your journey—if you follow the example of Israel and fail to persevere in the obedience of faith.”

Here’s what I had not seen before but that now struck me as obvious: In this passage, Paul is drawing a direct parallel between the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, and the miraculous food and drink with which the Lord fed the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings. Paul is implicitly referring to the Eucharist as “supernatural food and drink.”

In other words, when the Apostle Paul thought about the Lord’s Supper, he didn’t just think about remembering our Lord’s death and proclaiming it. Images also came to his mind of water springing up from rocks and manna falling down from heaven. When Paul thought about the Eucharist he thought about supernatural food and drink given to sustain the New Covenant people of God on their journey through the wilderness of this world to the Promised Land of the Beatific Vision.

Paul seems to have thought of the Eucharist as supernatural food and drink.

4. Finally, I had to admit that what Paul goes on to say about the danger of receiving the Eucharist unworthily seemed somewhat at least strange—if he believed that the Lord’s Supper was nothing more than a simple meal by which we remember our Lord’s death.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged (1 Cor 11:27-31).

To receive unworthily is to profane the body and blood of the Lord?

It is to drink judgment on oneself?

One can become weak and ill and even die by receiving the Lord’s Supper unworthily?

Again, in biblical interpretation, it’s always possible to say, “Well, I think he just means…” and then go on to explain what the inspired author “just means.” But it sure seemed to me like Paul viewed Christ’s body and blood as being somehow truly present and received in the Eucharist.

It sure seemed to me like Paul viewed the Eucharist as something more than a merely symbolic meal of remembrance.

Conclusion

I left chapters 10 and 11 of 1 Corinthians with three main thoughts in mind:

1. Nothing Paul says in this passage “proves” or “demonstrates conclusively” the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I don’t believe one could demonstrate the doctrine from 1 Cor 10 and 11.

2. At the same time, Paul says nothing in these chapters that is not entirely consistent with the doctrine of the Real Presence and a few things in 1 Cor 1:1-6 and 11:27-31 that make a great of sense on the premise that he took the Eucharist to be more than a simple meal of remembrance. So while the Real Presence can’t be proved, it fits.

3. Finally, the question of how to weight the evidence from the early Church. Given that Paul doesn’t spell out a “doctrine of the Eucharist” anywhere in his writings, if the early Church believed and taught the Real Presence, and if what Paul says is consistent with the Real Presence, upon what exactly would I stand to reject that belief and teaching?

The mere possibility that this isn’t what Paul meant?’

Love,
Matthew

A Baptist minister discovers the Eucharist: Part 3 of 9


-by Ken Hensley

If I had wanted to remain a Baptist pastor, I should never have read the brilliant Anglican convert John Henry Newman.

It was Newman who in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine famously said, “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” He insisted that it was “easy” to show that the early Church was not Protestant. He went so far as to assert that if the system of doctrine I held as a Baptist minister had ever existed in the earliest centuries of Christian history, it has been swept from the historical record as if by a flood. There is simply no evidence of it.

A single quotation from St. Justin Martyr, writing around 150 A.D., sums up what seems to have been the universal teaching of Christianity, in both the East and the West, for the first fifteen hundred years of Christian history.

For not as common bread or common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food that has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus (First Apology 66).

From History to Scripture

How does a Christian who has always viewed the Lord’s Supper as a simple symbolic meal of remembrance respond to this challenge?

A good number have ingrained into them so deeply the conviction that “nothing really matters except what the New Testament teaches” that they don’t care what the early Church believed.

Assuming that they know pretty well what the New Testament teaches on the topic, the idea that the Church might have held—even for the first fifteen hundred years of it’s existence—a view of the Eucharist that was in all essentials Catholic, doesn’t rattle them enough to make them even want to find out if it’s true.

I wasn’t able to respond like this.

First, I had spent years and years in academic study of the New Testament writings. I had preached verse by verse through a number of New Testament books, working directly from the Greek text. I knew enough about the New Testament to know that it is not even close to being a “manual of Christian doctrine.”

If it was a manual of Christian doctrine, we wouldn’t have so many contradictory opinions on so many doctrinal issues among Christians who all believe they are following the clear teaching of Scripture.

The ministry of the Apostles was primarily one of evangelizing, making disciples, establishing churches and teaching those churches the doctrines of the faith. Instructing them.

When the Apostles wrote, most of the time they wrote to deal with specific problems that had arisen in specific churches. They didn’t write to summarize Christian doctrine and with rare exceptions, they don’t summarize Christian doctrine.

I knew this. And I knew enough about the contents of the New Testament to suspect that there was no passage to which I was going to be able to point to say, “Here it is! Proof that the early Church’s belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is unbiblical!”

Second, with respect to the value of early Church history, it seemed reasonable to me to think that even as the teaching of the Apostles would be reflected in their writings, so would their teaching be reflected in the faith and practice of the early Church.

Would not the faith and practice of the early Church, I asked myself, be a good indicator of what the Apostles had taught – especially in a case like this where the Church’s belief and practice seemed unanimous and was evidenced very early in the Church’s history?

This seemed reasonable to me.

It did not seem reasonable to think that the apostles would teach one thing and the entire Church turn around and immediately teach another.

Third, what seemed reasonable to me clearly seemed reasonable to the early Church as well.

St. Irenaeus describes the Apostles as having deposited their teaching in the Church as a rich man deposits his money in a bank. Because of this, Christians, he says, can come to the Church to draw from her the truth.

As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith [from the apostles], although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth…. When, therefore, we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek among others the truth, which is easily obtained from the Church. For the Apostles, like a rich man in a bank, deposited with her most copiously everything which pertains to the truth; and everyone whoever wishes draws from her the drink of life (Against Heresies I:10:2 and 3:4:1, c. 189 A.D.)

Love,
Matthew

A Baptist minister discovers the Eucharist: the witness of the Fathers, Part 2 of 9


-Christ & Church Fathers, please click on the image for greater detail


-by Ken Hensley

“One of the earliest post-apostolic writers is St. Ignatius, bishop of the Church in Antioch and personal disciple of John the Apostle. 

Late in his life (107-110 A.D.) Ignatius was condemned to death in the arena in Rome. He was to be fed alive to wild beasts. On his way from Antioch to Rome, he wrote letters to seven churches scattered throughout Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), many of the same churches St. John wrote to in the Apocalypse.

In his letter to the Church in Smyrna, Ignatius mentions a certain group he clearly conceives as being outside the fellowship of the Church. This is how he describes them: 

But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ, which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. They have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond or of the free; of the hungry or of the thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which was offered for our sins and which the Father, in His goodness raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6-7).

This was the first time I remember hearing the Eucharist described as “the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.” And I was hearing it in a pastoral letter, written by a man who learned his Christian doctrine from John the Apostle himself, written by a man on is way to die for that faith.

In the same letter, St. Ignatius refers to the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality.” The medicine of immortality. 

What could I say? Clearly, this was language that would never have entered my mind to use to describe the Lord’s Supper. Whether Ignatius was right in his view or had already departed from the teaching of the Bible into “magical” Catholic ways of thinking, it was beyond dispute that this early bishop and martyr held a view of the Eucharist very different from mine.

*****

I read on and came to St. Justin Martyr, the first of the great Christian apologists. Writing around 150 A.D., he also described the Eucharist, and in terms similar to those of St. Ignatius: 

For not as common bread or common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food that has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus (First Apology 66).

To this Baptist minister, there were nearly as many strange ideas as words in this passage. Food that is “made” into the Eucharist? Food that is made into the Eucharist “by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him”? Food that by the change of which” our blood and flesh is “nurtured”? 

A prayer that “changes” bread and wine and “makes” it into the Eucharist? Never had I heard anyone speak about the Lord’s Supper as these two early witnesses did — except of course my old friend who had become Catholic.

*****

I read on and came to St. Irenaeus, bishop of the Church in Lyon and the first great biblical theologian. Writing around A.D. 180, he described the Eucharist in these terms: 

Just as the bread from the earth, receiving the invocation of God, is no longer common bread but the Eucharist consisting of two things, the earthly and the heavenly, so our bodies, receiving the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible but have the hope of resurrection to eternal life (Against Heresies, IV. 18).

*****

I read on and came to Tertullian. Writing around A.D. 210, he describes what is happening in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, he says, “the flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ that the soul likewise may be filled with God” (Resurrection of the Flesh, 8).

I read on and came to Cyril of Jerusalem. Around 350 A.D he wrote in his Catechetical Lectures: 

[A]s the bread and the wine of the Eucharist before the invocation of the Trinity… [are] simply bread and wine, after the invocation the bread becomes the body of Christ, and the wine the blood of Christ (19;7).

The problem for me was not that I could find a few references like these scattered over the first four centuries of Christian history. The problem was that I found I could continue multiplying quotations like these from virtually everyone writing in those early centuries!

St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Hippolytus of Rome, Origin of Alexandria, St. Cyprian of Carthage, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Augustine of Hippo, and many, many more. It wasn’t just some of these early bishops and theologians and apologists that used this kind of language when speaking of the Eucharist. All of them did!

They all seemed to believe that when the words of consecration were spoken over the bread and the wine, these elements were changed. They all seemed to believe that some kind of miracle took place and that what was received in communion was no longer simple bread and wine but in some way, unknown to me, the body and blood of Christ. 

As far as I could tell, there was no evidence of any period of early Christian history in which the Church believed what I believed about the Lord’s Supper.

From History Back to Scripture

The questions that ran through my mind at this point were these: 

If the apostles taught that the Lord’s Supper was a simple meal of remembrance involving bread and wine as symbol, how could the early Church have gotten so far off, and so quickly, and so universally? 

How is it that Christian bishops and theologians living in different centuries and scattered all over the then-known world all speak in such similar ways? 

And if all of this is evidence of a grand departure from the teaching of the New Testament, how is it there no evidence anywhere of anyone saying this? Why is there no one raising his voice to complain? “Listen, brothers, this not what the apostles taught!” One can find plenty of evidence of other disputes in the early Church. Why not on this issue?

My instinct as a Protestant committed to sola scriptura was to respond to these questions as many others have responded: 

Who cares? Who cares what the early Church believed and taught about the Lord’s Supper? In the end, all that really matters is what the Bible teaches. As for Ignatius and Justin and Irenaeus and Ambrose and Augustine and the rest, Isaiah 8:20: “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” 

On the other hand, was it possible that there was more support for the teaching of the early Church in the Bible than I knew? How certain was I that the doctrine of the Real Presence was unbiblical?”

Love,
Matthew

A Baptist minister discovers the Eucharist: Part 1 of 9


St Jerome’s cave, beneath the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Israel, please click on the image for greater detail.


-by Ken Hensley

For many years I believed that what we Catholics refer to as the Holy Eucharist was something very different.

It was the “Lord’s Supper” to Baptists and other Evangelicals. We viewed it as a simple meal of remembrance and recommitment.

Jesus had said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” St. Paul had written, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). And in the thinking of essentially every Christian I knew, this was the sum of it: the Lord’s Supper was a time for calling to mind what our Lord had suffered for us, giving thanks, recommitting our lives to Him and by the sacred use of bread and wine proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes again.

Of course, we believed Jesus was “with us” in the breaking of the bread, but not in any sense substantially different than He is with us all the time. Certainly there was no “miracle” taking place by which bread and wine were changed in any way. No. The bread and wine were mere symbols, the bread depicting Christ’s broken body, the cup his shed blood.  

With this view, although it was common for an ordained minister to lead in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and for it to be celebrated in the church and during the Sunday worship service – once a month, once each quarter depending on the church – this wasn’t in any sense required. Indeed, it was common in the evangelical circles I was familiar with for adults, young adults, even teenagers, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper at youth camps and retreats, using whatever elements they had available.

Once I heard about potato chips and Coke being used.

Now, I don’t mean to say that the Lord’s Supper wasn’t treated as important, or meaningful, because it was. It was a solemn time. But like reading the Bible, or singing a hymn, or praying, it just wasn’t something regular Christians couldn’t do when and where they liked. Again, it’s not like some special miracle of some sort was taking place!

Calvin’s Conception

At some point along the way, the teaching of John Calvin on this subject began to intrigue me.

He spoke of the Lord’s Supper as a special “means of grace” in which Christ is not merely remembered and proclaimed, but is present in a special “spiritual” sense. He said that in communion Christ gives himself to us as “spiritual food” and that in communion we Christians “feast” upon Christ our Passover Lamb, that we “partake” of Him.

Now, Christ is the only food of our soul, and therefore our heavenly Father invites us to Christ, that, refreshed by partaking of him, we may repeatedly gather strength until we shall have reached heavenly immortality (Institutes of the Christian Religion Book IV, Chap XVII.1).

Of course Calvin was eager to emphasize that this was a “spiritual” feasting and not anything like what Catholics believe. 

I was intrigued by this idea. And while I knew there were a number of New Testament passages that might – might! — support such a notion (we will return to these later in this series), I didn’t think Calvin’s view could be established with any degree of certainty from the data of the New Testament alone. 

What was clear to me – what I thought could be clearly demonstrated from the pages of the New Testament – was that in the Lord’s Supper we remember, we recommit, we proclaim. 

The New Hampshire Confession of Faith, a Baptist Confession drawn up in 1833, spoke of 

The Lord’s Supper, in which the members of the church, by the sacred use of bread and wine, are to commemorate together the dying love of Christ; preceded always by solemn self-examination.

I was happy to stick with this simple definition.

A Friend’s Conversion

About eight years into my pastoral ministry, I learned that an old acquaintance from seminary days had become Catholic. 

I listened to his recorded conversion story and I still remember physically wincing when he spoke of receiving Christ in the Eucharist, “body, blood, soul and divinity.” The idea was so entirely foreign to me. In truth, I felt a little sick thinking about it.

This doctrine of the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Eucharist was completely alien to the evangelical world in which I had learned the faith and in which I lived and ministered.

Yes, I was aware that this “view” was anything but foreign to hundreds of millions of Christians from the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran traditions. Martin Luther himself defended to the end a doctrine of the Real Presence. But none of these Christian denominations, I would have insisted, had adhered faithfully to the practice of sola scriptura.

If they had developed their theology of the Lord’s Supper directly – and solely! – from the teaching of the inspired Word of God, the Bible, they would never have embraced such nonsense.

Although I felt secure that I stood with Holy Scripture on this subject, there was one thing my old acquaintance said in his conversion story that made me sincerely curious. 

He claimed that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist had been the faith of the Church from the beginning. 

The Testimony of the Fathers

Now, my assumption had always been that these “magical” views of the Lord’s Supper (baptism as well, but that’s another subject) must have arisen slowly over the course of several centuries as the Church incrementally strayed from a strict adherence to the Bible alone. Now I was being told that this wasn’t the case. 

So what was the truth? What did Christians in the earliest centuries after the apostles believe about the Lord’s Supper? 

I began for the first time in my Christian life to read the early Church fathers and to really listen to what they had to say. 

In A Plea for the Christians (circa A.D. 170) Athenagoras, one of the earliest Christian apologists, wrote to answer certain charges that were being hurled against the early Christians. Besides being accused of “atheism” (because they rejected the gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons), and of participating in sexual orgies (because they were known to “love one another” and greet each other with a “holy kiss”), the pagans accused the early Christians of practicing cannibalism. 

Why? Because it was known that in their clandestine meetings the Christians gathered to celebrate a secret meal, during which they would eat the flesh and drink of the blood of a human being.

Athenagoras mentions that the Christians were accused of celebrating “Thyestian Feasts” — a reference to Greek mythology, where Atreus, motivated by revenge, killed the children of his brother Thyestes and served them to him for dinner. Thus the charge of cannibalism.

The charges of course were nonsense—although after reading the language the early bishops, theologians and apologists routinely used to describe the Eucharist, I had to admit that I could understand how some might misunderstand.”

Love,
Matthew

The Cost of Discipleship: Bethany & Scott Moelker


SCOTT MOELKER is a Catholic elementary school teacher who lives in Toronto, Ontario with his wife and two daughters. He is interested in theology, he enjoys board games, and he occasionally blogs. His blog is at iesusetecclesia.wordpress.com

I was born into a family of faithful Canadian Christians, with my parents and much of my extended family belonging to the Christian Reformed Church. Baptized as an infant and instructed in the Christian Faith from a very young age, I cannot remember a time when Jesus was not my Lord, although I did not always serve Him well. Growing up, I was blessed to live abroad in England for two years, attending secular, Catholic, and Protestant schools. By the time I had graduated from high school, while I was a professing member of the Christian Reformed Church, I had spent significant time in a Methodist Church and also in a Christian Missionary Alliance Church. This wide range of experience gave me a broader perspective of Christianity.

While in school in England, I had been bullied physically and verbally for being a Christian. This served to make me stubbornly committed to my faith and also caused me to develop a thorough understanding and intellectual defense of my faith. I took 1 Peter 3:15 (NRSV) to heart: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you” — although I ought to have been gentle and respectful as well (see 1 Peter 3:16). I normally argued to prove someone wrong, not out of love. I also had the same battle that every teenage boy must go through with lust. Nevertheless, I became very independent, constantly researching and reading about the Christian Faith.

Most of my time in high school took place in the government-funded Catholic system in Ontario. This was my first exposure to Catholicism. I spent my time correcting teachers who were “cafeteria Catholics” and paying little attention to teachers who were faithful Catholics. At first, I saw the failings of Catholics as symptomatic of their false faith and failings of Protestants as aberrations. Then I spent my last year of school in a Protestant school and came to realize that teens in both systems were checking out of faith, and I couldn’t see spiritual laxity as a unique feature of Catholicism. I learned a valuable lesson about understanding others and the tendency we all have to magnify the faults of “outsiders.”

Maturing in Faith

After high school, I attended Redeemer University College, starting in 2008. There, I quickly became aware that, while my intellectual faith was absolute, my emotional faith was lackluster. I served God and professed a love for Him, but I often felt that He was a rather hard master and that faith was a joyless endeavor, only rewarded in the afterlife. I had developed vices of lust and pride, but God worked in me through a Baptist church that I and many of my friends attended while away at school. The contemporary music and their practice of individual communion appealed to me (a general period when people could come forward as they wished for communion). Attending this church helped me to become a joyful, spiritually vibrant person who loved God, and it enabled me to begin dealing with some of my vices. This was also where I met my wife, Bethany.

While there, I finally became acutely aware of my non-conformist attitude. I had not really thought about the fact that my theological views did not correlate with a particular Christian group in my life. I didn’t agree with the Calvinism of my childhood, but I didn’t agree with Baptist theology, either. Calvin’s views seemed to undermine the narrative of Scripture and the character of God in an attempt to protect God’s sovereignty; it didn’t fit in with “For God so loved the world” (see John 3:16). On the other hand, I supported infant baptism; I loved creeds, and I felt the church institution ought to be more comprehensive than the local church, none of which were Baptist hallmarks.

I wasn’t even sure I agreed with my current corner of Protestantism. I would have called myself an evangelical, but by this I meant primarily an allegiance to “historic Christianity.” I was working on a double major in theology and history at the university, and this fed into deeper questions about my own faith. “Where is sola Scriptura in the Bible?” I asked a professor of mine on a whim. He admitted that he did not know. Still, I had nowhere else to go; I certainly did not agree with the Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s Witnesses who would come knocking at the door.

Seeking Out Catholics

Small Catholic or quasi-Catholic practices had infiltrated my personal life, possibly from my days in Catholic schools. I oc- casionally made the Sign of the Cross before praying. I began to teach myself Latin in my second year of university, praying John Calvin’s motto as a rote prayer every morning: Cor meum tibi offero, Domine, prompte et sincere. (My heart I offer, Lord, promptly and sincerely.) I nearly ended up at a Catholic youth outing, declining with genuine disappointment due to a prior engagement.

Underneath these active changes, an intellectual realignment had taken place. I expressed horror when a United Reformed friend told me he felt that all Catholics were damned to hell. How could that be, when they professed faith in Jesus Christ — the sole requirement for salvation in Protestantism? I also argued for the Sacrament of Confession, though mostly on practical grounds. In one theology class, I argued that the medieval Catholic Church had legitimate reasons to restrict Bible translation. I corrected a Pentecostal classmate who thought that Catholics worshipped the dead. Though I was not actively thinking about it, my interest in history deepened my understanding of Catholicism.

For one of my final classes, I chose to write a paper about interdenominational conversion stories. I wondered why I had trouble finding good Catholic to Protestant stories, while the reverse were a dime a dozen. “Catholic to Protestant stories all seem to involve Catholics who go through a ‘spiritual, not religious’ or ‘atheist’ phase and then get rescued by an evangelical,” I complained. “I can’t find a good conversion story involving a well-catechized Catholic.” My professor opined that new Protestants were just so happy to find the truth that they didn’t have to write a book about it, but this seemed a rather weak explanation to me. I nearly bought a Scott Hahn book at this time; little did I realize that I would be reading his story and many others only two years later.

I was studying to become a teacher and in my final year ended up with a spare elective slot that needed to be filled with an education class. I noticed that a class on teaching the Catholic faith was available and promptly enrolled. As a non-Catholic, I could not teach in a Catholic school, but I was free to “waste my time on a useless class” (as some of my friends told me). I had a very good time in that class, with wonderful classmates and a great professor named Lina. I even went to Mass once with a Protestant friend, whom I had convinced to join me in the class, along with our significant others. Conversion was not on my mind. I told curious friends that my choice was for “personal edification.”

At the end of the class, Lina gave everyone a rosary. I thought mine rather fetching, with its black beads and silvery chain links, but I didn’t (yet!) have a use for it. I ended up keeping it in my pocket as a physical reminder to be a man of prayer. I soon got used to carrying it everywhere with me.

We Teach Best What We Need to Learn Most

After graduation, Bethany and I were hired to work overseas in a small Christian school. This school operated on a shoestring budget. The couple who had started it had good hearts and wanted to provide English curriculum to students who would go on to study abroad. Despite the pure intentions of the couple running the school, they had chosen to use a cheap, popular American homeschooling curriculum that was downright horrible.

I was irritated, though somewhat bemused, to see that the program’s textbook on the history of education taught that “from ad 500 to 1500 were the Dark Ages, when there was no light of knowledge or understanding” and that the light of faith actually went out during that time. The book then described Martin Luther as a busy builder of schools who started an economic renaissance in Germany that lifted it over the next two hundred years into a period of economic prosperity — as well as rediscovering the true faith while spending time “withdrawn from society.”

I didn’t give those textbooks much more thought until a number of months into teaching. One of our students asked my wife about the cartoons in her books. These cartoons tried to show an idealized world for the child to imitate. In these cartoons, black and white people generally went to separate schools. The student was upset and said she thought that was mean. Bethany agreed and told me. I was horrified.

I took as many textbooks home as I could and read through the Social Studies collection. As I read, I became outraged. Among other, greater problems unrelated to this story was a special hatred for Catholics. Catholics were often simply written out of history. Sometimes, prominent Catholics, like St. Francis Xavier or Christopher Columbus, were adopted and simply presented as though they were Protestant Christians. Other times, Catholics were introduced as villains. The section on Spanish activity in the New World basically repeated old, wartime anti-Spanish propaganda. They described Catholicism as an empty, ritualistic religion started in the eighth century, a religion that does not strengthen the economy like Protestantism does.

The true faith was presented as a federation of independent Bible believers who understood God’s will by simply changing the pronouns in the Bible to insert oneself into the passage being read. This was not how I had been taught to understand the Bible, and I knew from my theology classes that we needed history to defend the canon and understand certain problematic Bible passages.

These books prompted a crisis of faith. I could not accept their version of history or faith and wanted to show exactly how it was wrong. On what basis did I judge that program’s particular version of sola Scriptura to be wrong? I had to explain and justify my use of history and my use of Scripture to myself.

At the same time, my sympathy for how badly Catholics were maligned by this curriculum caused me to become keenly aware that I was using many Catholic things in my teaching practice. I had a prayer box in my classroom. I talked about fasting for Lent and got the school to celebrate Holy Week. One of my students told me that I spent too much time on history and the Church in Bible class. In a chapel message on prayer, I taught my students the Sign of the Cross and used pictures that included a statue of Mary and a young man clasping a rosary. I even showed them my rosary, telling them that I kept it to remind me to pray but did not use it.

Then, for two Sundays in a row at the end of the school year, while I was in church singing, I felt very close to God. I felt very strongly that I ought to become Catholic. I was unsure why I was feeling this way, but I had always been of the opinion that, since Jesus is the truth, we need not fear anything. So I signed up for an account on the Catholic Answers forums and pulled out a massive package of printouts that Lina had given me while I was in teacher’s college.

The first thing I read was a set of quotes about the Eucharist. I was floored. Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, the Council of Nicaea, Augustine … the list of quotes read like a Who’s Who of the early Church and unequivocally taught with one voice that, when we receive Communion, we receive the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. By way of example, Ignatius was taught by the Apostles, and his use of all four Gospels forms part of the Christian argument for the New Testament canon. Yet he wrote: “They [heretics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 6).

After I recovered from my shock, I began to question. “Well,” I thought, “it’s quite possible these quotes were taken out of context.” I downloaded the public domain copy of Philip Schaff’s translations of the Church Fathers. They were not out of context.

“Well,” I thought, “it’s still possible that this has no real Scriptural support.” Poking around on Catholic Answers led me to examine John 6, and I could not escape the clear message that Jesus gave there. “Score one for the Catholics,” I thought — and the truly scary part was it had not even been a contest.

Coming Out Catholic

I began to systematically investigate everything I had against the Catholic Church. I could see a series of developments in my personal faith that I knew could not lead to Protestant answers, but I prayed for God Himself to move me. On Catholic Answers, an individual contacted me out of the blue, offering to buy me any Scott Hahn books that I wanted. I asked for Hail, Holy Queen and Rome Sweet Home, and he graciously sent them to me without question, an answer to prayer. I was amazed by how cogent Hail, Holy Queen was. I had asked for it because I thought the Catholic approach to Mary was perhaps their most indefensible position. Yet here were sensible, scriptural answers!

Bethany and I went through several Ascension Press studies:

Pillar I: The Creed, Epic: An Adventure Through Church History,and Oremus: A Guide to Catholic Prayer. They were beautiful and, as far as we could tell, true. At this point, we were certain that we would become Catholic, although we could not go to a Catholic church due to the status of Catholicism in the country where we were working. We also had to consider the potential impact on our young students, many of whom were new Christians. So we agreed that we would delay our final decision until we returned to Canada.

But neither of us could separate conviction from lifestyle. We started with our private life. As a young Protestant couple, we were using a contraceptive pill. Now, based mostly on my wife’s convictions after reading Rome Sweet Home, we gave up using it and prayed God would not bless us with children too quickly. She almost immediately began to feel better both physically and spiritually.

Next came disclosing our growing certainty to some good friends. My first experience was very good. An elder at our church was starting a Bible study on the Church. I wanted to join because I wanted another Protestant perspective, but I thought it only fair to disclose my intentions to him before joining. I did not want to derail his group with my presence and questions. He was welcoming, and at the end of the study, I still felt Catholics were absolutely right. This dear brother, rather than trying to dissuade me, started lending me Catholic movies such as Keys to the Kingdom and The Scarlet and the Black.

My wife and I were members of a small group of young people that met to watch and discuss episodes of Wayne Grudem’s 20 Christian Basics. We enjoyed the food and discussions. Telling them that we were becoming Catholic, however, did not go smoothly. The coming-out experience included the whole range of reactions. One individual looked as though she would cry. Another looked horrified. Others were curious. We started having very spirited discussions, which made some group members uncomfortable. So for the peace of the group, we decided to stop attending.

Our position really became difficult when it came time to tell our families. When we told my father-in-law on Skype, he got up and walked out. Bethany was in tears. (He has since apologized; we caught him off guard and unprepared.) The same day, we broke it to my family. They took it pretty well, but my sister was very disappointed. Her first response was: “You’re going to go to Catholic churches to evangelize them, right?” and her second, “Well, we’ll see how long that lasts.”

More complications emerged. I needed to find a teaching job back home in Canada. I did not feel called to work in non-religious schools. As an “unconfirmed Catholic,” I was not eligible to work in a Catholic school. As an “informal Catholic,” however, many Protestant schools would not hire me. I wanted to work in an ecumenical Christian environment. At length, I was offered a position at a small Classical Christian school that had started up only the year before.

Protestant Problems

After returning to Canada, we settled in Toronto. Teacher training for my school began in late August 2015, where I was faced with an immediate problem. It turned out that this Classical Christian school was better described as a Protestant school. Despite the fact that I had said, “My wife and I are thinking of becoming Catholics and will be attending a Catholic church” and had given them a written list of books I’d read in the past year, including Hail, Holy Queen, Rome Sweet Home, Evangelical is not Enough, The Protestant’s Dilemma, and Where We Got the Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church, my interviewer now said he felt “misled.” My interviewer had believed that I was just trying different churches rather than seriously becoming Catholic. When they discovered I was serious, I was asked many questions about whether I prayed to the Pope and how my relationship with Mary was. I was told that many members of their church did not like Catholics and my interviewer would never have hired me if he had known I was a “confirmed Catholic.” They did, however, agree to honor my contract.

I was asked to meet regularly with a Protestant pastor, wear nothing Catholic, describe my commitment to Catholicism as tenuously as was honest, and avoid all mention of the Church with the kids I was teaching. My parents felt that once the school knew that I loved the Lord, they would no longer care where I went to church. They loyally encouraged me to make the best of it. In January, however, I met with the principal, who confirmed that though I had taught well and he trusted me, they were not willing to have a Catholic teacher in the school. I would need a new job, and they would need a new teacher. When he prayed for new hires during staff devotions in the spring, he prayed against making a hiring mistake using martial imagery, so that they would not have “an enemy in their midst.” This pointed prayer was not directed at me but still hurt.

Every school event seemed fraught with danger. Before I had been warned, one of my coworkers asked where I attended church, and on hearing that I went to a Catholic church and was converting because I had investigated Catholic theology, she was very upset. She told me that she knew many women damaged by Catholicism and that one of them had all sorts of stories about priests coming over and getting drunk on her father’s wine.

It was a difficult start, and had God not provided the strength, we might not have made it.

The Fullness of Truth

In the midst of these difficulties, the great joy of the year was the long, slow joy of realizing that we were becoming Catholic. Bethany had a great consolation those first months of feeling that, when we were at Mass, all was right in the world. I had the consolation of my wife’s unflinching support and accompaniment. Readings from the beautiful Liturgy of the Hours became a treasured part of our daily routine. I prayed the Rosary every day while walking to work, picturing all the angels and saints as walking with me. I expected the Protestant pastor I was asked to meet with to try to change my mind, but he did not. I began to look forward to meeting with him. Midway through the school year, I told some of my other coworkers about my situation, and they seemed shocked that I was being dismissed for my Catholic faith.

Only a stone’s throw away from our house was an excellent Catholic church, Holy Family. Our parish had many priests because it was attached to a seminary, and the first homily we heard there referenced the priest’s background as an evangelical Protestant. We met with Father Michael and related our odd story to him. He gave us some Catholic materials and checked to see that we had a Bible, that we knew we could not receive Communion, and that we were not using birth control. Then he signed us up for RCIA class, which he taught. Later, we met another young Catholic couple because one of the couples had attended my university. Their friendship was a great help.

I had to begin searching for work again. I had many of the same problems as before: I was not formally Catholic, however firm my intentions might be. Despite this, a wonderful Catholic school in Dawson Creek, British Columbia offered me a position. This took a great weight off our shoulders, knowing that God had provided well for our future in the Catholic Church.

The most nerve-wracking part of preparing for reception into the Church was certainly First Confession. It was one thing to know that Jesus wanted me to confess my sins. It was quite another thing to actually prepare a list of my sins and confess them in the presence of another human being. Fortunately, Jesus gave me the strength to go through with it. After I completed my penance, my sponsor said, “Now you’re clean.” Amazingly, I did feel thoroughly clean, and I wanted to stay like that forever. I felt like I was floating on a cloud.

At the Easter Vigil itself, I was blessed to have my immediate family and my sister’s fiancé attend to support us. They came and took us out to dinner to celebrate before the Easter Vigil. It was a long Mass, and our traditional church used a good deal of Latin, which was hard for them to understand, but the great number of Scripture readings made an impression on my mother. As for Bethany and me, it was the most beautiful Easter celebration we’d ever seen, full of solemn majesty. With three other members of our RCIA class, we were received into full communion with the Church and partook of Jesus’ Body and Blood for the first time.

Since then, we have been blessed with the birth of our daughter, Jessica. She was baptized only a few months after we were received into the Church. We had the great joy of having both our families attend the baptism. Then, it was time to say goodbye to Toronto and our parish and move across the country to begin our new life.

Although life will contain many more adventures and trials, we are thankful. The Lord has called us to the fullness of truth in His Church. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9 NRSV).”

Love,
Matthew

Luther – Merit & Love

“Love is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 3, Life in Christ, Section 1, Man’s Vocation Life in the Spirit, Chapter 1, The Dignity of the Human Person, Article 7, The Virtues, #1822

“…For love and a reflex movement of the mind are directly opposed to each other. In true love, as in true faith, a man moves away from his (false) self to find his (true) self. Reflexive faith, on the contrary, returns to the ego.

Since true Christian charity, or love, is primarily directed to God, it is love for God that is crippled most by the new kind of faith. Outside of pietistic movements, love for God or Christ has become widely unknown or is even expressly rejected in Protestantism. As early as 1518, Luther denied the possibility of contrition out of love for God.1 Melanchthon, the first dogmatician of Lutheranism, contended that a man suffering the accusations of his own conscience is unable to love God,2 and this view, laid down as it is in one of the Confessions of Lutheranism, has come to share in the authority that these books enjoy. Luther could say: “Love God in His creatures; He does not will that you love Him in His majesty.”3

This quotation shows that, though love for God loses its primacy, brotherly love is urged emphatically. When Luther speaks of love he almost invariably refers to love of one’s neighbor. We shall see, however, that the new orientation of his religion assigned to brotherly love a spiritual function and a theological position quite different from the place it holds in biblical and Catholic spirituality and doctrine. Love is not identical with good works, but is necessarily operative in them. Good or meritorious works are, by definition, works done out of love for God. Love is infused by the Holy Spirit, Who is the Spirit of freedom. Therefore, the Holy Spirit, love, freedom, and good works are inseparably interlinked. Faith is the basis of love…

…”Then “I do good works, love God, offer thanks, practice love of my neighbor. But this love or these works do not inform or adorn my faith but my faith informs and adorns my love.”16 The last quoted sentence implicitly polemicizes against the Catholic doctrine that the act of faith is perfected by being informed (pervaded or animated) by love.17 This doctrine is nothing but an expression of a biblical idea. In 1 Corinthians 13:1–3:7, ( Ed.  “…if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” – 1 Cor 13:2; Shema) St. Paul says that all proclamation, all faith, and all works are “nothing” without love; for it is love that believes and hopes…

…Luther has reversed the traditional doctrine. He teaches that it is not love that informs faith but faith that informs love…What he wants to emphasize is that love has no place in acts relevant to justification or in the spiritual life proper. Only after reflexive faith has been properly established can love and works be practiced…

…Now if faith, instead of being informed with love, has rather to inform love, what is the part that faith has to play in the just man’s good works? We have already mentioned Luther’s view about man’s obligation to assert that his works are pleasing to God (Chapter I, Section 3). Since the act of faith, in his opinion, amounts to performing an assertion, it is consistent that he could say, as he did in his early Protestant period, that the prime good work was faith itself.20 The assertion of the works’ agreeableness to God is the kind of faith that, according to him, is most intimately tied up with the practice of doing good works. For, as we showed above in Chapter I, assertion not merely accompanies, but even constitutes the goodness of, works. So we may comment that in Luther’s doctrine it is in its assertive aspect that faith is supposed to inform “love and works.”

But it need not be demonstrated at length that in this sort of religious practice there can be no question of love, least of all love for God. If a man, in dealing with another person, asserts that his action in relation to the other is pleasing to that person just because of his asserting that it is so, he is not realizing a true interpersonal relationship, and by no means can such behavior claim to be called love.

In Luther’s system, however, the practice of assertion and self-reflection has an important place, not only in the doctrine of faith, but also in connection with the topic of love and works. He teaches that if a man finds himself doing good works, he may take this as evidence that his faith is right, since true faith must actuate man to do good works.21 In a disputation held in 1543, Luther defended this thesis: “Love is a testimony of faith giving us assurance and enabling us to assert with certitude God’s favor. . . .”22 Here love is identified with works to the extent that one word—love—denotes both. It goes without saying that the love meant is mere philanthropy, not love for God…“I am in God’s favor.”… If he finds that he is doing such good works, he should take this as an occasion to assert his being in God’s favor a second time, in order to strengthen his certitude.23 Thus even the theology of love, after being reduced to a doctrine of love of one’s neighbor, culminates in encouraging the practices of self-reflection and assertion. Brotherly love is urged, but its theological meaning is entirely altered. Even love is not an outgoing movement from, but ultimately a return to, the believer’s ego.

Luther was not unaware of the fact that his doctrine was alien to Holy Scripture…

…Here it becomes most clear that in his instructions for the spiritual life, Luther has forgotten the most important thing: love for God.

…The Church urges the obligation that a man cooperate with God’s grace. Now this cooperation is coterminous with good works, which are actions flowing from love. Therefore, abiding by the biblical view of the interpenetration of the three theological virtues, the Church teaches that faith, hope, and charity are bestowed on man in conjunction and that without hope and charity, faith cannot lead to eternal life.33

In Luther’s system, hope is anticipated or absorbed by the certitude which he equated with faith. The distortion of the concept of faith involves a disfigurement of the notion of hope. We need not enter into Luther’s conception of hope.

It is love that presented the greatest problem to him. In assessing his polemics, we have to keep in mind that some late medieval nominalists had contended that man could, by his natural powers, love God above all things.34 Luther was only defending the Catholic position when he opposed this view.35 But after he had established his new theory of faith, he did not, unfortunately, confine himself to clarifying the doctrine of the Church concerning love as a gift of God.

His attack, in his Protestant period, was directed chiefly against the proposition that faith, in order to be justifying, must be informed with love.36 He argued that this proposition amounts to ascribing justification ultimately to love. Man, however, cannot have perfect love in this life and, consequently, justification would be impossible.

In another argumentation, Luther contends that if love has a part in justification then justification would not be a pure gift of grace but an achievement of man, wrought through the fulfilling of the commandment to love God and one’s neighbor. In short, justification would not be effected by grace and faith alone, but by the law, which would be contrary to St. Paul’s teaching.

The first argument leaves out of account the fact that, as Luther himself elsewhere admits,37 even faith—reflexive faith—is often enough too weak to achieve the salvific certitude. So the same objection that Luther leveled against the role of love in justification, could be raised against faith also.

The second argument acknowledges that faith is a gift of God, donum Dei, but forgets that the same is true of love. If, however, love is also a gift of God, then work done out of love for God is ultimately a gift of God, too. Moreover, Luther here equates good works—which are works done in the freedom of love—with works of the Law. This involves a capital misinterpretation of the New Testament. Luther himself, in his early career, had understood his Bible better, as we saw above in section one of this chapter. Finally, if faith consists, as Luther would have it, in asserting one’s own certitude of salvation, then it would be, though on the psychic level, a human achievement no less than any external “work.”

A third argument, defended in a disputation of 1543, acknowledges that both faith and love are gifts of God. But, here, love for God is totally left out of consideration, and love of one’s neighbor is again included among the works of the Law.38 Moreover, Luther argues here that love, being directed to human beings only, is prone to contracting acquisitive, “mercenary” habits. He seems to forget that a behavior which includes such habits is not charity, not Christian love at all.

The astounding weakness of, and the variations in, Luther’s arguments indicate that it cannot have been reasoning or sober exegetical effort which caused his stiff opposition to the doctrine that faith, in order to be living faith, must be informed with love….

…“We must be certain that we are holy.”40

The joint evidence of these two remarks reveals what is borne out by other statements as well, namely that Luther’s prime concern was to have at his disposal that certitude which he equated with faith and with salvation. Now there is a certitude inherent in a relationship of love also, but this is not manageable by, nor at the disposal of, either of the partners individually, since it resides in the interpersonal relationship. Hence, Luther deems it insufficient. And it is quite to the point when he argues, first, that only what he has apprehended or grasped in a concept is at the disposal of his mind; and, second, that such grasping or gripping can be performed only by the intellect, not by love…

…It must be emphasized that the idea of merit…is an essential part of the New Testament message, whose relinquishment amounts to a serious curtailment of the Gospel. Deeply imbued with the spirit of Scripture, St. Augustine has made it clear, and the Church has recognized it as her own doctrine, that “all our good merits are wrought through grace, so that God, in crowning our merits, is crowning nothing but His gifts.”43 The idea of merit is an indispensable expression of the interpersonality of God’s dealing with man. In rewarding man’s merit, God acknowledges that the goodness of man’s deeds flows from the depth of the created person, namely from charity which is primarily directed to God because it has been infused by God. Luther’s suppression of the idea of merit, on the contrary, is but another symptom of the depersonalization wrought by the reflexivity of his faith. If reward did not correspond to the worth of man’s deeds but merely followed it, with the goodness of man’s deeds remaining God’s exclusively, then God would not deal as Person with man as a person. Living interpersonality would be reduced to a dead mechanism. Man would be little different from a lifeless thing—or else the grace God bestows on him would not be a transforming power.

Luther’s second argument shows that he tries to make even the idea of reward subservient to his central tenet. He suggests that the biblical passages speaking of reward should not be taken to mean what they actually say. The hearer or reader of Scripture should interpret them as an encouragement or consolation assuring him “that his works are certainly pleasing to God.”44 Thus, even here, what matters for Luther is solely the believer’s certitude of being in God’s favor. And this again amounts to a depersonalization. Man would fail to respond as a person to God’s personal call if he used God’s promise to reward good actions as an occasion to assert the agreeableness of his works to God, and if he imagined that his deeds are pleasing to God if and when he asserts that they are so.

The twofold depersonalization comes close to a denial of an interrelationship between God and man. If God would not estimate man’s deeds as done by man but regard them as exclusively His own—that is to say, not as His gifts but as mere deposits—and if man would himself assert what he ought to leave to God’s judgment, then both God and man would act each for himself, without having personal regard to each other. On both parts there would be no freedom and no love, no freedom of love.”

-Hacker, Paul. Faith in Luther: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion (p. 84-85, 88-93, 95-97, 99-100). Emmaus Academic. Kindle Edition.

LOVE,
Matthew

1 1, 321, 18.24.
2 Apologia Confessionis Augustanae, Art.III (De dilectione et impletione legis), no.7; Art.V (De poenitentia), no.34.
3 11, 185, 5.
16 40I, 275, 12.
17 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, 4, 3; “Caritas dicitur forma fidei, inquantum per caritatem actus fidei perficitur et formatur.” The Council of Trent has not dogmatized the term “informed with love” but has rejected Luther’s doctrine that love has no share in man’s justification. See Denzinger, no. 821.
20 6, 204, 25; 209, 33.
21 See above, Chapter III, Section 3, and Althaus, op.cit., 375.
22 39II, 248, 11. Cf. 40I, 577, 12.29.
23 10III, 225, 35.
33 Denzinger, nos. 800 and 821.
34 Heiko Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology (Grand Rapids, 1967), 153 and 155. 35 1, 224, 28; 225, 3.
36 40I, pp. 164ff; 225, 23; pp. 239ff; pp. 436ff; p. 606; 40II, pp. 34–39; pp. 79ff; 39II, pp. 191–193.
37 For example 25, 331, 27; 31II, 434, 20.
38 39II, p. 238. Theses 8, 12, and 16f.
40 39II, 192, 3.
43 Augustine, Letter 194, 5, 19; Sermo 131, 8; Tractatus in Joh. Ev. 3, 10; De trinitate 3, 10. Council of Trent: Denzinger, no. 810.
44 18, 695, 14.

Merit & righteousness – part 4 of 4, merit


-by James Akin (Jimmy Akin is an internationally known author and speaker. As a senior apologist, he has more than twenty years of experience defending and explaining the Catholic faith. Jimmy is a convert to Catholicism and has an extensive background in the Bible, theology, the Church Fathers, philosophy, canon law, and liturgy.)

“A subject which is misunderstood by Protestant apologists just as much as the Catholic view of righteousness is the Catholic view of merit. A lot of this is due to the connotations the term “merit” has in Protestant minds. Normally this is taken to be a synonym in Protestant vocabulary for “earn,” however as we will see this is nothing like what the term means in Catholic theology.

In fact, it has never been what the term meant. It has only gained that connotation from its usage in post-Reformation anti-Catholic polemics. From the very beginning the term was used differently. Thus in the second century the Latin term meritum was introduced as a translation of the Greek term for “reward.”[6] In fact, it was picked over another term (merces) precisely because it lacked the legalistic connotations of meritum. Thus a document released by the German conferences of Catholic and Lutheran bishops states: “[T]he dispute about merit also rests largely on a misunderstanding. The Tridentine fathers ask: How can anyone have doubts about the concept of merit, when Jesus himself talks about ‘reward’ and when, moreover, it is only a question here of acts that a Christian performs as member of Christ? . . . Many antitheses could be overcome if the misleading word ‘merit’ were simply to be viewed and thought about in connection with the true sense of the biblical term ‘wage’ or reward (cf., among other passages, Matt. 20:1-16; 5:12; John 4:36; 1 Cor. 3:8, 14; Col. 3:24). There are strong indications, incidentally—and a linguistic analysis could provide the evidence—that the language of the liturgy does not merely reflect the true meaning of the concept of merit stressed here, but—quite contrary to the Reformers’ fears—prefers to explain what was meant through the word meritum rather than through the term merces (reward), for the very reason that merit sounds less ‘materialistic’ than reward.”[7]

The term merces does in fact have very materialistic connotations. In fact, there is a joke among Latinists concerning Jesus’ statements in the Vulgate of Matthew 6, Receperunt mercedem suam which is jokingly translated “They have received their Mercedes”—the car brand name “Mercedes” being derived from merces.

Because meritum is simply the Latin translation of the theological term “reward,” this reveals to us a fundamental unity of the doctrine of merit and the doctrine of reward, a doctrine which even (most) Protestants acknowledge since the Bible uses the term. In fact, the Bible uses very “materialistic” terms in this regard. The three key terms for reward the New Testament uses—misthos, apodidomai, and misthapodosia mean respectively “wages,” “to deliver or pay off,” “payment of wages due.” It kind of puts a new feel on things when one brings this forward into English and one sees Jesus saying: “Rejoice and be glad, for your wages are great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).

“He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet’s wage, and he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s wage” (Matthew 10:41).

“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your wage will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish” (Luke 6:35).

This kind of puts a different slant on it, and the New Testament is chocked full of this kind of “profit motive” language (see C. S. Lewis’ excellent essay, The Weight of Glory for a Protestant exposition of this point), though translations often obscure the fact. In fact, one may note that Protestant translations tend to translate misthos inconsistently, as “wage” whenever the context is worldly-economic and “reward” whenever it is something promised to believers by God.

Nevertheless, though the New Testament uses highly economic language in speaking of the believer’s rewards (e.g., “He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor,” 1Co. 3:8; “The Lord will repay everyone accord to his works,” Rom. 2:6), it does not in any way intend this language to be taken to mean that Christians earn their place before God.

Thus in Catholic theology, merit is in no way earning, but identical with the concept of reward. Brought about by God’s grace, acts which please God are done by Christians (Phil. 4:18, Col. 1:9-10, 1Th. 4:1, Heb. 13:16, 13:20-21) and God chooses to reward them (Rom. 2:6, 1 Cor. 3:8, 4:6, 2 Cor. 5:10, Gal. 6:6-10, Rev. 2:23, 22:12). These elements, God’s grace, the acts pleasing to God that they bring about, and the reward God chooses to give, are the key elements in the Catholic theology of merit, as we shall see.

The doctrine of merit is thus the same as the doctrine of rewards. To help Protestant readers grasp this and cut through the linguistic confusion experienced on this point because of the associations of the term “merit” in the Protestant vocabulary, they should try substituting “reward” or “rewardable action” or “to perform a rewardable action” for “merit” in what follows. This should cut through the confusion.

In the previous section, we discussed three senses of righteousness—legal, actual, behavioral.[5] In this section we will look at three forms of merit, which we will call congruous, condign, and strict.

In all three forms, there is a similarity between the action and the reward, and it is this similarity which makes it fitting for the reward to be given for that work, which is why the term “merit” is applied. In all cases of merit, an action merits its reward in the sense that the action is similar to the reward in a certain way and thus makes it fitting that the reward be given. The difference between the kinds of merit depends on the kind of similarity between the action and the reward and, correspondingly, it depends on the kind of fittingness there is that the action be given the reward.

Before looking at the three kinds of merit we are concerned with (congruent, condign, and strict), it is helpful to note two kinds that we are not concerned with.

The first of these is natural merit. Natural merit occurs when a person does an action that has natural value but not supernatural value, and which consequently deserves a natural reward. For example, if I do natural labor for an employer, that merits the paycheck I receive in return. Because I am only doing something with natural value (natural labor), the act deserves only a natural reward, such as money, not a supernatural reward, such as glory in heaven.

The only way for a natural task such as doing one’s job becomes supernaturally meritorious (and consequently receiving a supernatural reward), is if one does the natural task at least partly on the basis of the virtue of charity, or supernatural love. Charity is the principle of all supernatural merit, and the only thing God chooses to supernaturally reward. Thus if you give a cup of cold water to a thirsty person for a natural motive, such as to get him off your back or to assuage your guilt, then this will get no reward from God. However, if you perform the natural act partly from a supernatural motive, such as giving the thirsty person a cup of cold water because you supernaturally love him as a creature of God and wish to help him, then this is supernaturally meritorious and will receive a reward from God.

This principle lies behind Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount: “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:44-47)

Even the unregenerate (tax collectors and heathen) have natural love for those who do good to them, and so if we have only natural love for others, we will receive no reward from God (” . . . what reward have you”). God’s love is different, it is supernatural and embraces all people, regardless of whether they do good or not. Thus he sends rain and sun (blessings in an agricultural society) on both the righteous and the wicked, on both his friends and his enemies. Jesus tells us that to be sons of our Father (i.e., to behave as Christians), we must display this same supernatural love that the Father does, and that when we do this we will receive a reward from him.

The same principle lies behind Jesus’ statements in Matthew 6 concerning doing acts of righteousness in front of men. If we do an act of righteousness in front of men, we may be tempted to do it for purely natural motives (i.e., so they will praise us or think well of us), and thus it will receive no reward. The only way for the act to be rewarded is if it is done for supernatural motives—to please God out of love for him—and thus Jesus instructs us (using typical Hebrew hyperbolic language) that if we are going to be tempted to do acts of righteousness for natural motives we should avoid the temptation by doing them in such a way that only God will know about them.

In any event, natural merit is not of interest to us at present because it gains no supernatural reward. Only supernatural merit is of concern here.

The second kind of merit we are not concerned about in this paper is demerit—that is, the kind of merit which is accrued when an action has a negative value and so it is fitting for it to receive a negative reward. This can happen in both natural and supernatural merit, and thus it can be fitting for one to be punished naturally (by being put in jail, fined, spanked or whipped or caned, etc.), as well as being punished supernaturally (by losing the joy of fellowship with God, being denied the sacraments, being tortured in spirit in this life, or going to hell in the next). Demerit is not also not of interest here because we are concerned with the sense in which the term “merit” is objected to by Protestants.

Having said that, let us now look at the three forms of merit in which we are interested—congruent, condign, and strict.

Since we are here talking about supernatural merit, the most basic sort of similarity between the action and the reward is that it is a supernatural action and so makes fitting a supernatural reward. As we said before, the only kind of actions which God supernaturally rewards are those which have a supernatural motive—the virtue of charity, which God implants in our hearts and which it is completely impossible for us to produce ourselves. In fact, according to Catholic theology each new supernaturally motivated act we do requires God to give us a special, new grace (called an “actual grace”) in order to do it. The denial of this was the position known as semi-Pelagianism, which claimed that God gave us all the grace we need at the beginning of the Christian life and that we do not need to be sustained in salvation by new grace, a position which was infallibly condemned by the Church. Thus when supernatural merit occurs, God gives us the supernatural motive to perform the supernatural act to which he then gives a supernatural reward.

This is the principle behind Augustine’s statement: “What merit, then, does a man have before grace, by which he might receive grace?—when our every good merit is produced in us only by grace and when God, crowning our merits, crowns nothing else but his own gifts to us” (Letters 194:5:19).

The basic principle of supernatural merit, therefore, the thing that makes it supernatural, is the grace which God gives to enable there to be a supernatural act in the first place, the only kind of act for which a supernatural reward is fitting.

But in some cases God has not promised a reward. A reward might be fitting, but it may not have been promised. To give a human analogy, if someone holds the door open for me while I have a load of books in my arms (a common event for me), it is fitting that I hold the door for them next time. However, I have not promised to do so, and all things being equal I am not strictly bound to do so. Thus it is fitting for me to hold the door for this person, but there is no strict obligation involved. This is, on a natural human level, what Catholics would call congruent merit.

Congruent merit occurs with respect to God when a person under the influence of actual grace does an action which pleases God but which he has not promised to reward. Some times God chooses to reward the act, sometimes not. For example, if we obey Jesus’ instruction to supernaturally love our enemies and pray for them; however, God has not promised that he will answer our prayers concerning them, and although he is pleased with the prayers we are offering out of supernatural love for them, he may not give them the blessing we are asking for them. It may simply not be God’s will for that to happen. The same is true of prayers for ourselves; even when we pray from supernatural charity we are likely only congruently meriting the thing we are asking for since God has not promised to give it.

The obvious next higher form of merit is one in which God has promised to reward the action. In this case when a person under the influence of actual graces performs the supernatural act, God is not only pleased by the act but he is guaranteed to reward it because he has promised to do so. This kind of merit is known in Catholic theology as condign merit.

One thing it is important to realize about condign merit is that, even though God has promised to reward the at, that does not mean that the act has an intrinsic value equal to the reward it is receiving. If I perform an act of charity and God gives me a heavenly reward in the next life by giving me an additional level of supernatural beatitude, the value of the act I perform in no way equals the value of the beatitude. There may be a proportionality that can be drawn between the amount of charity God’s grace has led me to exercise in this life and the amount of beatitude I get in the next life, but there is no equality between the two values.

The reasons that there is no equality and thus the intrinsic value of God’s rewards always immeasurably exceeds the intrinsic value of our merits is that, as Anselm pointed out in his Cur Deus Homo, the value of an act is proportional to the value of the person making it. Thus I, as a finite being, could never make the infinite atonement Christ did on the Cross (even if I was sinless and always had been). It took a Person of infinite value—the Son of God—to make an infinite satisfaction. Similarly, I, a finite creature, can never merit anything of infinite value, but the beatitude which God bestows upon us in the afterlife is of infinite value because it will be enjoyed for all eternity.

Thus the fundamental basis for all condign merit is God’s promise, not the intrinsic value of the human act, even when it is brought about by God’s grace. Without God’s promise we would have no claim on the beatitude God offers; however, under God’s grace we do indeed claim the promises of God, even though what he promises always infinitely outweighs what we have done by his grace.

If our actions were equal in value to his reward then what would have occurred would be referred to in modern Catholic parlance as strict merit. Strict merit is what would occur when someone gives to God something of equal intrinsic value to the reward he has promised to give. The trick is, only Christ is capable of doing this since only Christ is capable of doing things of infinite value for God. Other humans are totally incapable of this because we lack the infinite dignity of the Godhead supervening on our actions.

Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator” (CCC 2007).

The same themes have been stressed by Catholic theologians for ages, not only by St. Augustine and his famous axiom “when you crown our merits, you crown your own gifts,” but by theologians ever since.

In the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “[W]here there is no simple right [to a thing], but only relative, there is no character of merit simply, but only relative . . . [as when] the child merits something from his father and the slave from his lord. Now it is clear that between God and man there is the greatest inequality, for they are infinitely apart, and all man’s good is from God. Hence there can be no justice of absolute equality between man and God, but only of a certain proportion, inasmuch as both operate after their own manner. Hence man’s merit with God only exists on the presupposition of the divine ordination” (Summa Theologiae Ia:114:1).

At the Council of Trent, when the mutual hostilities with Protestants were greatest, the Council fathers wrote: “Christ Jesus himself, as the head into the members [cf. Eph. 4:5] and as the vine into the branches [cf. John 15:5], continually infuses his virtue into the said justified [people], a virtue which always precedes their good works and which accompanies and follows them, and without which they could in no wise be pleasing or meritorious before God . . . [F]ar be it that a Christian should either trust or glory in himself and not in the Lord, whose bounty toward all amen is so great that He wishes the things that are His gifts to be their merits. And since in many things we all offend, each one of us ought to have before his eyes not only the mercy and goodness but also the severity and judgment [of God]; neither ought anyone to judge himself, even though he be not conscious of anything [1 Cor. 4:3-4]; because the whole life is to be examined and judged not by the judgment of man but of God, who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts and then shall every man have praise from God . . . ” (Decree on Justification 16).

In the twentieth century, theologian Michael Schmaus writes, “In this connection, it must be remembered that man cannot make any valid claim on God. Since the ‘reward’ give by God always infinitely exceeds what is due man, the word ‘merit’ can only be used analogously. Because of God’s transcendence and the resultant inequality between God and man, merit in the strict sense of the word cannot occur in the relationship between God and man.”[8]

“We would not dare to hope that God would reward the actions of the justified man if he had not promised it; our hope is based on his word. At the same time, the reward is a grace . . . . What is meant [by merit and reward] is not an extrinsic, material repayment for the pain and trouble endured in the accomplishment of good works; it is rather the intrinsic fruit of the action itself.”[9]

“All of this does not, of course, mean that like all good things, the promise of a reward from God cannot be misunderstood and misused. There is a danger that the ill-instructed Christian may hope to gather merit as a basis for bargaining with God, to use his good works as a kind of pledge which God must at once redeem. Needless to say, notions of this sort are very far from the meaning of the scriptural texts and the Church’s teaching” . . . . [That God rewards our merits] “rests on his free decision: he has promised that he will do so, and he keeps his word. Except for this divine promise, no one could flatter himself that his good works would have such an effect.”[10]

And twentieth century theologian Ludwig Ott writes: “Merit is dependent on the free ordinance of God to reward with everlasting bliss the good works performed by His grace. On account of the infinite distance between Creator and creature, man cannot of himself make God his debtor, if God does not do so by His own free ordinance. That God has made such an ordinance, is clearly from His promise of eternal reward . . . . St. Augustine says: ‘The Lord has made Himself a debtor, not by receiving, but by promising. Man cannot say to Him, ‘give back what thou hast received’ but only, ‘Give what thou has promised'” (Enarr. in Ps. 83, 15).[11]

These quotes, stretching throughout history as they do, from Augustine through Aquinas and Trent and twentieth century theologians into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, show how false and foolish the idea is that the Catholic Church teaches that we earn our place before God. Only Christ as the infinite God-man, whose infinite dignity gives his every action infinite weight, is capable of earning anything before God. So while God’s grace does bring about in Christians actions which please God and which he chooses or even promises to reward, only Christ is capable of doing before God what Protestants mean by the term “merit.” Catholics only say Christians do what God rewards.”

Love & technical precision for the sake of clarity & peace & love,
Matthew

[6] Alister McGrath, Justification by Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 70.

[7] The Condemnations of the Reformation Era: Do They Still Divide? Justification III.7.

[8] Schmaus, Dogma 6:138.

[9] ibid., 142.

[10] ibid., 143-4.

[11] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 4th. ed., 1960, (Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1974), 247.

Merit & righteousness – part 3 of 4, moral realism


-by James Akin (Jimmy Akin is an internationally known author and speaker. As a senior apologist, he has more than twenty years of experience defending and explaining the Catholic faith. Jimmy is a convert to Catholicism and has an extensive background in the Bible, theology, the Church Fathers, philosophy, canon law, and liturgy.)

“Another reason why Protestants need to accept the language of objective guilt and innocence is that the Bible itself uses this kind of language. It often speaks of guilt and innocence in terms of objective properties, such as colors or cleanliness. Scripture speaks of our sins being “crimson like scarlet” (Isaiah 1:18), and the Psalmist says “wash me with hyssop and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:7). It is also the kind of righteousness Scripture has in mind when it talks about our sins making us “unclean” or “filthy” and our forgiveness making us “pure” and “clean” before God. In these passages, guilt and innocence are conceived of as objectively real properties that cling to us just like colors and cleanliness.

So there is no reason why Protestants need to object to the metaphysical understanding of righteousness that Catholics use. In fact, many Protestants are uncomfortable with using purely legal language for justification and state quite adamantly that justification is not just a legal fiction. That God actually “constitutes” us in righteousness. The only difference on this point is that they do not use the metaphysical understanding of righteousness in order to explain what constituting in righteousness means. But there is no reason why they cannot do so and, as we have seen, there are positive reasons why they should. Thus for example Protestant authors such as Norman Geisler, who are more familiar with the principles of ontology, are willing to talk about actual righteousness being given in justification. Geisler, for example, uses the helpful terminology of speaking of legal righteousness as “extrinsic” righteousness and actual righteousness as “intrinsic righteousness.”

Catholics, for their part, have no trouble saying that a person is legally righteous before God when they are justified. If God constitutes a person in righteousness.  Furthermore, Catholics don’t need to have any problem with saying that our righteousness is brought about by a decree of God. The Catholic can be perfectly happy saying that when we are justified God declares us righteous and his declaration bring about what it says. He declares us righteous, and so our guilt is taken away and our righteousness is restored.

This is something for which there is good Biblical support for. God’s word is efficacious. It accomplishes what it says. In Genesis 1 God spoke and his word brought about the things that he spoke. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. He said, “Let the waters be divided from each other so that dry land may appear,” and they did. He said, “Let the waters teem with living creatures,” and they did. Furthermore, in Isaiah 55:11, God said, “[S]o shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (RSV).

God may sometimes choose to give graces which are incomplete, which do not of themselves bring about their target goal (see the essay, “Resisting and Cooperating With God“), but when God declares something to be so, it is so. God’s word is efficacious; it brings about what it says. So when God declares us righteous, we actually become righteous: we have our guilt taken away and our purity before God restored. This is true even if the righteousness that is being restored is the original righteousness which Adam lost for the whole human race.

Thus in Catholic theology the term “justification” is used to refer to the event by which we are given ontological or real righteousness. Coextensive with this, of course, is legal righteousness, for God will not treat anyone as unrighteous who is really righteous. Similarly, God will not treat as righteous anyone who is really unrighteous. As God declares in Scripture, ‘I will not justify the wicked” (Ex. 23:7)—His holiness prevents it. Thus for God to make someone legally righteous, He also must make them actually righteous; He must constitute them in righteousness. And for God to make someone actually righteous, He must correspondingly make them legally righteous.

So a Catholic need have no problems with the forensic/declaratory aspects of justification. God does indeed declare us righteous, and that is nothing with which a Catholic needs to quarrel. A Catholic also does not need to quarrel about which kind of righteousness is the cause and which is the effect, whether God declares a person legally righteous and that, by the miraculous creative power of his word, makes the person actually righteous, or whether God makes the person actually righteous and therefore declares the person legally righteous. This is a matter of indifference in Catholic theology.

Furthermore, when Catholics talk about progressive justification/sanctification, they are again thinking of God making us ontologically righteous. This is almost totally missed by Protestants when they compare the Catholic view of progressive justification to the Protestant idea of sanctification, which is in turn part of the basis on which they say Catholics confuse justification with sanctification. No, Catholics don’t. They recognize that growth in personal holiness (behavioral righteousness) is a separate and subsequent event to initial justification. The confusion is on the part of the Protestant who thinks Catholics are talking about growth in behavioral righteousness when they talk about progressive justification/sanctification. They aren’t. They’re talking about growth in actual righteousness.

This is sometimes a difficult concept for Protestants to grasp since they have heard so many sermons about righteousness being an all or nothing thing that they have trouble understanding the concept of how righteousness can grow. This is one of the things that keeps them boxed into a two-fold understanding of righteousness. However, the problem is solved when one grasps the concept of actual righteousness, which is not a one-dimensional but a two-dimensional concept.

The first dimension of actual righteousness is its level of purity, which we might refer to as the quality of the righteousness. When one becomes a Christian and is justified, one receives totally pure actual righteousness. There is no admixture of sin or unrighteousness in the righteousness God gives one. Thus in this sense one is made just as righteous as Christ, because the level of purity in Christ’s righteousness and ours is the same.

However, from this point of initial justification one’s righteousness begins to grow during the course of the Christian life. This is the hard part for Protestants to understand since they will ask, “But if we are already made totally pure, how can our righteousness grow from there?” The answer is where the second dimension of actual righteousness comes in. Righteousness does not continue to grow in the first dimension; once total purity has been received, it is not possible for righteousness to grow in that dimension. One cannot go beyond total purity in the quality of righteousness, so righteousness grows in its second dimension—its quantity.

Even though when we first came to God we were made totally righteous in the sense that we became totally pure, we have not yet done any good works, for these are made possible only by God’s grace after justification. The righteousness God have given us may be totally perfect in quality but it is not yet totally perfect in quantity. We may be just as righteous as Christ in the sense that the righteousness God has given us is just as pure as Christ’s, but it is not as extensive as Christ’s because we have not done as many good works as Christ. The tiny little good works we do in our lives—works wrought only by the grace God himself gives us—in no way compare to the huge, overwhelming, infinite good works of Christ, such as his death on the cross. So while we may have just as much righteousness as Christ in terms of its quality (total purity, by God’s grace), we do not have just as much righteousness as Christ in terms of its quantity.

It is in terms of the quantity of righteousness that rewards are given in heaven, and thus because Christ has a greater quantity of righteousness than we do, he also has a correspondingly greater reward. As Paul says: “[B]eing found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:8-10). And as the book of Hebrews declares: “Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, . . . for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). And so “in everything he [has] the supremacy” (Col. 1:18).

This understanding of the three kinds of righteousness—legal, actual, and behavioral[4]—enables us to look back at the reasoning of the Protestant apologist we mentioned earlier and see where it goes wrong. One will recall that the apologist reasoned: “Catholics believe we are made righteous when we are initially justified, but they do not believe we are made legally righteous, so they must mean that we are made behaviorally righteous at initial justification.”

Obviously this is false since the Catholic is not boxed into a two-fold view of righteousness. It is natural for the Protestant to think this, since his own thoughts on righteousness are normally limited to legal and behavioral, but in fact that Catholic believes that in justification we are given actual righteousness (and in conjunction with it, legal righteousness, for the two are co-extensive, as well as being given the first stirrings of behavioral righteousness through regeneration). The apologist then reasoned: “They also believe that we grow in righteousness during progressive justification. This has to be growth in behavioral righteousness, because legal righteousness before God cannot grow; you are either legally righteous or you are not. Thus Catholics must mean by ‘progressive justification’ what I mean by ‘sanctification’—that is, growth in behavioral righteousness.”

This is also false because in progressive justification Catholics are again talking about actual righteousness, and actual righteousness does grow in quantity though not in quality.

“However, if it is possible to grow in behavioral righteousness after initial justification, that must mean the Catholic does not believe he was made completely righteous in initial justification.”

This is false because the Catholic does believe we are made completely righteous in terms of the quality of our righteousness (both actually and, consequently, legally) at justification. The growth that occurs later is a growth of quantity, not quality.

“Thus Catholics must believe they are made partially behaviorally righteous during initial justification and then they grow in righteousness during progressive justification, which I call sanctification. Thus they confuse justification and sanctification.”

If Catholics did believe initial justification is to be identified as the event where we are made partially behaviorally righteous, followed by later growth in behavioral righteousness, then they would indeed be confusing justification with the sanctification (as Protestants use the term “sanctification”), because this would merely make justification the first stage of behavioral sanctification. However, while there is a gift of partial behavioral righteousness at the time of justification (because of regeneration, which makes us spiritually alive and no longer dead in our sins, so that the power of sin is broken in our lives and we are no longer enslaved to it, though we do still have to battle it, cf. Romans 6), this gift of partial behavioral righteousness is not what justification consists in. In Catholic language, justification consists in God making us actually righteous (and 100% righteous in terms of quality), which is either brought about by God’s declaring us legally righteous or which brings about this legal declaration.

The confusion is thus not on the part of the Catholic. The Catholic is not confusing justification with sanctification—not confusing our initial reception by God and the growth in behavioral righteousness which follows—the confusion is on the part of the Protestant apologist who has not studied Catholic theology properly (and who probably has never read Catholic sources or has only scanned them looking for “ammo” to use against Catholics, rather than trying to enter into the Catholic thought-world and understand what Catholics really mean rather than what he has been told in sermons and lectures and radio program they mean), and who has thus confused his own understanding of sanctification with the Catholic understanding of both justification and sanctification.

Unfortunately, the misunderstanding the Protestant apologist has concerning these matters leads him into other confusions as well. For example, I have talked to, debated, and read numerous Protestant apologists who, because they are confused about the growth of righteousness, ask questions like, “If Catholics believe we are only made partially righteous in justification and you do good works after this to make this righteousness grow, how do you know when you have done enough good works to go to heaven? How many good works do you have to do?”

Protestants who say this at least have a leg up on those who think Catholics believe we must do good works in order to become justified—a position which was explicitly condemned at Trent, which taught “nothing that precedes justification, whether faith or works, merits the grace of justification” (Decree on Justification 8).Catholic theology teaches we do not do good works in order to be justified, but that we are justified in order to do good works, as Paul says: “[W]e are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Justification is the cause, not the consequence, of good works.

However, these Protestants are still confused about the fact that Catholics do not teach we are made only partially righteous in justification. The Church teaches that we are made totally righteous—we receive 100% pure righteousness—in justification. Thus Trent declares: “[I]n those who are born again God hates nothing, because there is no condemnation to those who are truly buried together with Christ by baptism unto death . . . but, putting off the old man and putting on the new one who is created according to God, are made innocent, immaculate, pure, guiltless and beloved of God, heirs indeed of God, joint heirs with Christ; so that there is nothing whatever to hinder their entrance into heaven” (Decree on Original Sin 5).

This one quote alone, even without the surrounding infrastructure of Catholic theology, from which the same thing could be deduced, shows how false, foolish, based on inadequate research, and motivated by a lack of comprehension of basic Catholic theological reasons is the whole, “How can you know when you have done enough?” line of argument. Nothing beyond one’s initial justification and regeneration is needed in order to go to heaven. In fact, this is one of the arguments in the Catholic case for infant baptism. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Since the earliest times, baptism has been administered to children, for it is a grace and a gift of God that does not presuppose any human merit; children are baptized in the faith of the Church. Entry into Christian life gives access to true freedom” (CCC 1282).

And also: “Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God . . . [And thus] The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant baptism” (CCC 1250).

You don’t have to do a diddly-do-da thing after being justified by God in baptism in order to go to heaven. There is no magic level of works one needs to achieve in order to go to heaven. One is saved the moment one is initially justified. The only things one then does is good works because one loves God (the only kind which receive rewards) and not choose to cast out God’s grace by mortal sin. And even if one does cast it out by mortal sin, the only thing needed to get it back was the same thing needed to get it in the first place—repentance, faith, and sacrament, except the sacrament in this case is confession rather than baptism.

People try to make the Catholic message sound complex, but it’s really simple: “Repent, believe and be baptized; then if you commit mortal sin, repent, believe, and confess. Period.”—even a five year old child can understand that. All the exegesis and infrastructure of catholic soteriology I am giving in this work is strictly not necessary, any more than the exegesis and infrastructure found in Protestant soteriology books is either. From a Catholic perspective, repentance, faith, and baptism are just as easy to get across in an evangelistic appeal as they are for Protestants; in fact, they are easier since one doesn’t have to explain, “Okay, repentance and faith are necessary, but baptism isn’t, but it’s still really important, and so you need to do it, okay?” On the Catholic view, the message of the elements we have to preach is much simpler: Repent, believe, and in the saving waters, receive the righteousness of God.”

Love & technical precision for the sake of clarity & peace & love,
Matthew

[4] There is also a fourth kind of righteousness, historical righteousness, which is one’s track-record in terms of righteousness through history. Once historical righteousness has been lost through sin, it cannot be regained since God does not change history when he justifies us. This is something both Protestants and Catholics agree upon, and so this kind of righteousness we do not need to go into in this paper.

[5] Actual may be taken as the middle term between legal and behavioral, since behavioral unrighteous leads to actual unrighteousness, which leads to legal unrighteousness. Similarly, increased behavioral righteousness leads to increased actual righteousness, which leads to increased legal righteous (in the forensic recognition of the quantity of righteousness, though the quality of one’s legal righteousness remains unchanged).