Category Archives: Baptist

Bible study: Acts of the Apostles


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


-by Casey Chalk

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

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

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

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

Why Acts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Few Questions to Explore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Love, & Christian charity,
Matthew

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

Catholicism is true – Casey Phillips


Casey Phillips

“What would convince a Jesus-loving, hymn-singing, Baptist preacher’s son to become a Catholic? This is a question that many have had for me over the past couple of years, whether they have worded it quite as succinctly or not. Why would someone with such a vibrant faith, rooted in a rich, solid family tradition, walk away from it and leap into the arms of the Church of Rome? Though many have probably speculated, citing history, art, or unity, they all fall short of the true reason that my wife and I made the journey across the River Tiber. As the famous Catholic convert, G.K. Chesterton, once put it, “The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons, all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” Though it may seem simplistic, it all boils down to that. Catholicism, when taken seriously and studied critically, simply cannot be denied.

My journey began in a small, rural Baptist church in western Kentucky. My wife’s began as a member of one of the largest Baptist churches in the state. Though from different church climates, both of us grew up alongside caring, God-fearing people who loved the Lord and wanted nothing more than to serve Him. We both were taught about the atoning death of Christ, the reality and impact of our sin, and the importance of Scripture. We were inspired to live lives totally entrusted to God’s love, and though we often took that mission for granted, the impact of that message remained with us throughout our formative years. The Baptist church was the only thing I knew as a child. We would often pass by the Methodist church downtown, but there was always an unspoken understanding that the Baptist tradition was the correct one. As far as Catholicism was concerned, my exposure to it, and that of my family, was non-existent. A thick shroud surrounded the term Catholicism, and none of us knew enough about it to commend or condemn it. Was it a Christian church? We weren’t exactly sure, but we also did not see any real necessity to investigate further. In short, the Baptist church was the only filter through which we understood the Christian Faith and our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lunchroom Preacher

As a young child, I fondly remember going to our local Baptist church with my entire family and participating fully in each service. As I moved into adulthood, I was asked to be the song leader as well as the Sunday school secretary, charged with recording each morning’s attendance, Bible reading participation, and offering. This active participation in my church community bled over into how I acted at school among my peers. I was the “lunchroom preacher” who called my peers to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. I recall one occasion when I attended a party, very much out of my character, after graduation. Upon my arrival with a friend, and greeting many familiar faces from school, one of my peers retorted: “Casey, what are you doing here? It’s like Jesus is here!” To those around me, my identity was inextricably linked to the faith that I proclaimed. I was not ashamed to stand up for what I believed, and I often did so with vigor. In one instance, of which I am not particularly proud, I made a girl my age cry after expressing to her my dislike for the less than laudable activities that she and some of her friends had planned for Easter weekend. For better or for worse, I was type cast as the “Jesus Freak” among my friends, and I had no intention of rejecting that title.

As I matured, I began to have troubles of my own, and my relationship with Christ was challenged. I had private struggles which no one knew about, that threatened to destroy the image that I had made for myself. At the very least, the perception that others had of me kept me from outwardly manifesting my innermost vices. This tug of war between who I claimed to be and who I was behind closed doors persisted and drove me to question my own justification before God. How could I sincerely call myself a follower of Christ and knowingly persist in the sinful ways from which He had died to redeem me? Many days I would return home from church, a cold sweat on my back, in fear that I had somehow lost the salvation which God had given to me at age fourteen. As a Baptist, I believed that God, once He justified or “saved” someone, kept him or her in His graces regardless of whatever sin he or she may have committed. Known as the doctrine of “once saved always saved,” this teaching was ordinarily a source of great solace for me. No matter how blinded I became of my sin, no matter how far I wandered away from my Creator, He persisted in holding me tightly in His clutches. Throughout high school, this doctrine was enough to keep me from completely questioning what I believed to be true. As many others have experienced, it was not until my undergraduate years that I was forced to make a decision about what I ought to believe about God. An encounter with other people who believed differently than me about eternal salvation, but who at the same time were God-fearing Christians, sought to frustrate my understanding of who God is and what He wanted from me.

Discovering That Not All Christians Are Baptist

Yes, it was during college, that proverbial hotbed of rebellion and dissension, when I was faced squarely with the fact that I may have had it wrong on at least one aspect of the divine. It was impossible for me to persist, as I had been doing up to that point, in the sinful acts that had begun during my high school years. This realization did not happen overnight, however, and it took me delving even deeper into sin before I experienced any real awakening. An addiction to pornography had ravaged my interior life with God, not to mention the serious relationship that I had with my fiancée (now my wife). This addiction, which had started when I was a pre-teen and which subsequently worsened when I became a young adult, forced me even deeper into the role of a faux Christian. But wasn’t my salvation secure? Was I not justified before God regardless of my sinful actions? My ruminations on the Baptist doctrine of “once saved always saved” grew longer and more intense. I continually sought to cool my burning conscience through watching and listening to different Protestant pastors or apologists who also promulgated this doctrine. Though they seemed to answer my questions for a time, I always ended up back online, searching the web for answers. The justifications that I had previously used for my actions had all failed to convince me that what I was doing was morally benign. It was through this struggle with sin that I was brought to the realization that I could not continue in it and legitimately call myself a Christian. Through God’s grace, I eventually stopped justifying my actions, became honest with myself about their malignancy in my life, and started the arduous trek toward walking uprightly with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Though I was still far from becoming Catholic, I began to seriously doubt the legitimacy of certain doctrines with which I had been raised. Specifically, I began to no longer believe that once God “saved” or justified someone, he or she could no longer be found outside of His fold. I realized that this man-made tradition of “once saved always saved” had been the source of all the stress and anxiety that I had endured over the last 10 years of my life. The biblical truth was that I needed to continue following Christ and guarding my relationship with Him, lest I be cut off from His grace (see Romans 11:22).

At the same time that I was coming to an awakening in my faith, I was double majoring in Spanish and religion as an undergraduate student. As I studied religion, with a focus in biblical studies, I began to see the divergence of beliefs between people who called themselves Christian. The professors who made up the religion department were themselves a testament to this fact; I took a class on Judaism with a Lutheran, a class on Augustine with a former Baptist, and advanced Old Testament with an Episcopalian priest. The culture of the college campus also lent itself to a broad range of belief and practice, some not even Christian. As I studied church history and the Bible, I began to discover that my understanding of the Christian religion, as described within the boundaries of conservative Evangelicalism, was somewhat limited, and that it could not be the only legitimate understanding of what Christianity is or should be.

As time progressed and my receptivity of other views increased, I was asked to serve as a teaching assistant under an Episcopalian professor. Noticing my progression away from my Baptist moorings, this professor would casually assert, jestingly, the superiority of the Episcopalian faith. During one specific exchange, he conveyed to me what he thought to be the benefit or advantage of being an Episcopalian. “Look,” he had said, “you don’t want to be Catholic because that is going too far. As an Episcopalian, you can be as Catholic or as Protestant as you want to be.” Though he did not know it at the time, that statement stuck with me until I eventually came home to the Catholic Church. It was not until much later that I found out that this view, known as the via media, was one that confronted other, more notable converts like Blessed John Henry Newman. Though my professor was a sincere, faith-filled individual, I could not begin to imagine having it “my way” when it came to eternal truths. Can I lose my salvation or not? Is the Eucharist truly the Body and Blood of Christ or merely a symbol? Must I confess my sins to a priest or not? I wanted the truth on these topics, as well as many others, and I did not wish to be the arbiter of divine revelation. Little did I know that the answers to these questions would be found in the Catholic Church.

At the same time that I was discovering the multiplicity of Christian belief, I had a Spanish professor who was one of the most outspoken people I have ever met, and he was unapologetically Catholic. Up until this point of my journey, I had never encountered anyone who was a practicing, sincere Catholic. In fact, when I first found out that this professor was Catholic, I remember being somewhat shocked. You mean Catholicism and Christianity are related somehow? At no point did this professor seek to evangelize or proselytize me during my four years of undergraduate work, but he did live his faith. No power or institution, not even the very institution for which he worked, could stand in the way of his ability to genuinely live his faith in everyday life. It was via his witness, and that of other Catholics that I met during this time, that I began to incorporate Catholicism into the panorama of Christian views that I considered to be legitimate. This move, though I did not recognize it at the time, would be my first step into the River Tiber, on my way to the Eternal City.

Amidst all of this spiritual awakening, God gifted me with a spouse who would prove vitally important to the direction of my faith journey. On July 28, 2012, the summer before our senior year of college, I exchanged vows with the woman who would become the mother of my children. Our wedding took place in a small country church just outside of Lexington, Kentucky, presided over by a very close friend with whom I had worked previously in a small startup church back in my home town. Marrying Erin was the best decision I had made up to this point in my life, outside of following our Lord. Though we would see our ups and downs, she would prove to be the rock I would lean on along the rough road we followed on our journey of faith.

My journey during college can only be described as an awakening. Transitioning from a fundamentalist, Missionary Baptist understanding to one which appreciated the beauty of many different Christian traditions was the first step toward my eventual conversion to the Catholic Church. Through an intense struggle with the Protestant doctrine of “once saved always saved,” I was convinced that I had erred in my understanding of how God redeems and heals His children. I vividly remember, toward the end of my undergraduate work, clutching an application to Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky and feeling unable to complete it. The application asked me to describe my relationship with Christ up to that point in my faith journey. How could I reveal all that I had gone through? Would they accept my application if I was truthful? I wasn’t even sure where I stood on my justified state before God, so undertaking a masters degree in theology seemed irresponsible. With the help of my wife, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in Spanish rather than undertaking the life of a Protestant seminarian. Though I could not see it at the time, and I often entertained doubts about my decision, the Lord was preparing my heart to receive something that I would have otherwise rejected out of hand. If I had gone to that seminary, who knows if I ever would have become Catholic?

What Is This Thing Called Catholicism?

After college, my wife and I moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where I completed the master’s degree in teaching Spanish. Resolving not to go to seminary was a difficult move, but I felt it was the only honest one to make. I was still struggling with what to believe as a Christian. After our move, my wife and I attended the church where she was raised, Southland Christian Church. Southland, the second largest church in the state of Kentucky, holds a very special place in my heart. Though it seemed at least ten times larger than the church I was raised in, Southland’s mission to serve others as the hands and feet of Christ left an impact on me. These people loved Jesus and loved each other in a way that I had not seen before.

For the first few months after our move, we attended Southland regularly, often accompanied by my mother-in-law. All seemed well, and from the outside it must have seemed like the perfect scenario. But my wife and I still felt as though something was missing. Was worship truly supposed to be about entertaining sermons, loud music, and strobe lights? Our hearts longed for something different, but we didn’t know what we were looking for. Though we had not considered it seriously before that point, we decided to go to Mass at the local Catholic cathedral. Both of us were nervous as we entered the cathedral and found a seat. “What if they smell the Protestant on us, Erin?” I asked semi-jokingly. We had been to Mass a couple of times before, but neither time were we fully engaged or remotely tuned into what was happening there. This time, however, we were very aware of our surroundings. When the people next to us stood, we stood, and when they knelt, we knelt. How very strange this experience was for someone who had grown up in a church where sitting throughout the service was the norm, and the only time the congregation spoke was to sing a hymn or offer an occasional “amen.” These people seemed like robots, chanting after the priest, who led them in these odd rituals. Though the Mass did not make sense to us at the time, it piqued our curiosity and set us on a course to investigate this “Catholic thing.”

Our investigation centered at first on the conversion stories of other Protestants turned Catholic. The Journey Home program on EWTN (the Eternal Word Television Network) I had long been familiar with. I had begun watching it while I was still in college. Looking back, I cannot remember what my initial motivation was for watching it as a college student, because I was at that time not considering Catholicism, but the episodes took on a new meaning to me once I began considering the Catholic Church seriously. Story after story, I found myself being drawn into the lives of many people, like myself, who had searched for answers and finally had found them in the Church of Rome. “Why couldn’t that be us?” I often pondered. Programs like The Journey Home provided my wife and me with a safe way to engage with Catholicism without the threat of being “found out.”

Books, like Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic by David Currie, also played a role in breaking down barriers between myself and becoming Catholic. I remember becoming excited and re-reading portions of the book to my wife at night. Also, Bishop Robert Barron’s video series “Catholicism” played a major role in our eventual conversion. Displaying the Church in all her beauty and universality opened my eyes to the incredible breadth of Catholicism. Truth after truth emerged before my eyes. Catholics actually had good reasons for their beliefs! I found out that the Catholic Church has taught about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist since the earliest days of Christianity, that Jesus established a hierarchical order to safeguard the Church, and that Peter was truly the first pope. These revelations, along with many others, swept over me like a tidal wave.

Of these revelations, one of the most exciting to discover, and at the same time the scariest, was the Church’s teaching on justification. I was relieved to find that the Church did not teach the doctrine of “once saved always saved,” but I was also concerned about what that might imply. I quickly found out that the Church taught that a Christian can, after initially being justified by God, sin against Him in such a way as to sever the relationship with his or her Creator. As with all things that the Catholic Church teaches, there is scriptural support for the assertions she makes. I remember looking to verses such as 1 John 5:16 and seeing the differentiation between sin that leads to death and sin that does not lead to death (mortal and venial sin). I also learned that priests were given the authority by Christ to forgive my sins and to restore the life of grace that is lost through my disobedience (John 20:23). As a Baptist, I had been taught that no sin could separate me from my life in Christ, and yet the Bible clearly showed me otherwise. The truth had been hiding in the very book that I carried back and forth to the Baptist church of my youth. Answers were coming, and I welcomed them.

As our objections to the Catholic Church continued to fall, the ominous realization that we needed to become Catholic became something we could not “shelve” or mentally evade any longer. When Erin and I both concluded that Rome was our destination, we took the next step in our journey and joined adult faith formation classes. Having intellectually grappled with the Church for months on our own, we decided to stop by our local cathedral parish to pray. Though we were seated several pews away from one another, we both began to sob as we prayed. It was as if the Lord was saying, “Enough waiting, come follow me.” Though our intellectual battle had not completely ended, it was safe to say that our hearts had “caught up.” So we joined RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), formed wonderful relationships with faithful Catholics and aspiring converts, and finally arrived at our confirmation day. On February 23, 2014, filled with joy and anticipation, my wife and I were sealed with sacred chrism and graced by the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the Son of God Himself. The finish line then became the starting gate as we entered fully into the life of the Church — the Church that Jesus Christ Himself had established on St. Peter some 2,000 years ago.

Proclaiming the Invitation to the Feast

In Luke 14, Jesus tells the story of a master who sends his servants out to gather people for a great feast at his home. After many of society’s prominent figures had rejected the master’s call, in verse 23 the master commands the servants to go out into the highways and byways and bring in anyone who will come to the feast. I definitely feel that I am one of those who has been graced by the master’s call to the peripheries, that I must respond by going out to those in need. I am now the leader of a local chapter of St. Paul Street Evangelization, an apostolate which seeks to take the truth of the Church to the streets, to those who have not heard it before or who had rejected it at some time in the past. The reality is that the Church needs voices to proclaim the good news of Christ and His Church. God can use the most unlikely avenues, as He did in my story, to convert souls.

In the past two years, since being received into the Church, my family has seen the moving of the Holy Spirit in a mighty way. Since our Confirmation, my sister has become Catholic, my mother-in-law was received into the Church on Christ the King Sunday of 2015, and my grandmother was confirmed during the Easter Vigil this year. The Lord truly is good, His love truly does endure forever, and His faithfulness endures through all generations (Psalm 100:5).”

Love,
Matthew

Jul 6 – Jan Hus, (1369-1415), Heretic, “John the Baptist of the Reformation”

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-from Anderson, C. Colt, Ph.D.. The Great Catholic Reformers: From Gregory the Great to Dorothy Day (Kindle Locations 1808-1816,1937-2040). Kindle Edition.

“Wearing a paper crown painted with three horrible devils about to greedily tear a soul to pieces and inscribed with the words, “This is a heresiarch,” the rector of the University of Prague was led to the stake on July 6, 1415. During his time as rector, Jan Hus had spearheaded the Czech reform movement. As he was stripped of his clothes and chained, Hus reportedly said, “The Lord Jesus Christ, my Redeemer and Savior, was bound by a harder and heavier chain. And I, a miserable wretch, am not ashamed to bear being bound by this one.”‘ After they had piled the wood up to his chin and lit the fire, Hus proclaimed that he had always been a faithful Catholic adhering to Scripture and Tradition. As we shall see, his claims of innocence were certain evidence of his guilt under the peculiar logic employed by the Inquisition.

Having affirmed his faithfulness, Hus began to sing, “Christ, you are the Son of the living God, have mercy on us; Christ, you are the Son of God, have mercy on me…” until the flames blew into his face. Peter of Mladonovice, an eyewitness to the event and a supporter of Hus, reported that Hus continued to move his lips in prayer though he could produce no sound. After the fire died down, the soldiers broke his bones and found his heart, which had not been fully consumed. They skewered his heart with a spit, rebuilt the fire, and reduced Hus’s heart and bones to ash….

Hus had all the charm and tact of an outraged goose. Since Hus means goose in Czech, his enemies made sport of him as the “Bohemian Goose.” Regardless of his lack of political acumen, Hus was a good theologian who was deeply committed to reform on a local level. He was not the type of man who would try to solve an international crisis like the Great Schism, though he did consider the implications of schism in his more academic writings.

Hus was five years old when the Great Schism began. He decided early on to pursue a clerical career because it afforded him an opportunity to escape poverty, which was a motivation that he was ashamed of later in life. The clerical establishment in Prague was already undergoing reform prior to the Great Schism. The struggles between the reformers and their opponents were formative for the young cleric.

Emperor Charles IV (1316-78), who was also king of the Bohemians, brought reformers to Prague to address the deplorable conditions in the 1360s. Charles had studied under Pierre Roger, who became Pope Clement VI (1342-52). He was a pious and knowledgeable ruler who cared about the spiritual lives of his subjects. Conrad Waldhauser, a famous Augustinian Canon, was recruited to clean up the situation. Waldhauser started a preaching campaign that brought the people back to Masses and he insisted on the moral reform of the people and the clergy. Almost immediately the Dominicans brought charges against the reformer for exposing the faults of the clergy among other things, but Waldhauser was able to clear himself in Rome.

What were the conditions in Bohemia at the time? Most of the priests who held the best offices were Germans. The Czech clergy, who were systemically excluded from the better schools, largely held rural benefices and tended to have substandard educations. Many Czech priests were keeping concubines, had problems with alcohol, and were using their positions to extort and swindle people out of their property. Prostitution, alcoholism, gambling, and violence were major problems facing the people of Bohemia.

The reformers began a series of initiatives to turn things around. More Czechs like Jan Hits were afforded an opportunity to study at the University of Prague. There was an effort to see to it that the Czech clergy would receive some of the better positions in the Prague diocese. As one might imagine, the policy embittered the German clergy in Bohemia. Finally, there were innovations in the liturgy that helped to spark a religious revival in Bohemia. The clergy began to preach in the language of the people, to incorporate folk songs that people could sing into the liturgy, and to provide people with vernacular Bibles. Special chapels, like the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, were set up for vernacular preaching.

One of Charles’s last acts was to see to it that he had a reformer, Jan of Jenstejn, installed as archbishop of Prague. Archbishop Jan (1378-96) ordained Hus. When Hus was twenty, Archbishop Jan came into conflict with the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Wenceslas IV (r. 1378-1419), who was Charles IV’s son. Unlike his father, Wenceslas was neither pious nor particularly knowledgeable. Wenceslas became emperor and king of Bohemia at the age of seventeen. His reputation was that of a vain and impulsive playboy. He was so disliked that there was an attempt to assassinate him in 1393. This was also the period when he decided to wage war on Archbishop Jan.

When one of Wenceslas’s administrators was excommunicated by Archbishop Jan in 1393, the emperor retaliated by dividing the archdiocese from a territory that was going to have both a new monastery and bishopric. By claiming these benefices, Wenceslas could sell them to the highest bidder and keep the money for himself; but the archbishop refused to recognize the legitimacy of the move and installed a new prior in the monastery before the emperor could act. Wenceslas was furious and had four principal officials of the archdiocese tortured in response. One official died from the torture.

Shocked by the audacity of Wenceslas, Archbishop Jan appealed to the Roman pope, Boniface IX (1389-1404). Boniface refused to hear the charges against the emperor. The Roman pope was afraid that he might drive the emperor to change his allegiance to the Avignon pope by disciplining him. Disillusioned by the pope’s refusal to protect the clergy of Bohemia from a tyrant, Archbishop Jan resigned his office in protest in 1396, which was the same year that Hus received his MA degree. Archbishop Zbynek, who succeeded Jan of Jenstejn, was much less scrupulous from the outset. He scandalized his clergy by buying his office.

The reformers had challenges within the University of Prague as well. The university was dominated by the German faculty. The Germans were solidly in the philosophical camp of nominalism, so the Bohemians chose to adhere to a strict realist philosophy. Due to the moral rigorism and realist commitments of the Bohemian clergy, they came to appreciate the works of the English reformer John Wyclif (1324-84). As the works of Wyclif came under attack, the Czechs found themselves defending his writings against the German theologians. Wyclif had gained symbolic value for the Czech reformers, and Hus can be seen as trying to salvage as much as he could from the English theologian as part of his polemics with the anti-reformers. This was, to say the least, something of a strategic and rhetorical blunder.

Before the controversy over Wyclif broke out, Hus grew famous as a fiery preacher. By 1402 he had been named as the rector and preacher of the Bethlehem Chapel, which was seen as the center of the reform movement. He preached some three thousand sermons in the course of his career. One of the favorite themes in his early sermons was that only faith formed in love, or faith expressed in works of charity, is saving faith.’ In 1405 and again in 1407, Hus was invited to preach to the clergy. On both occasions he emphasized the duties of the clergy and denounced clerical impurity.28 While he used very strong language on these occasions, he was not denouncing the clergy to the laity. Even so, his enemies remembered these sermons and used them against him.

Since 1403 the German masters at the university had been attacking the Czech masters by charging them with the heresy of Wyclifism, which was a vague accusation because it associated the Czech clergy with a series of disparate statements extracted from the writings of John Wyclif. The charges presented against the reformers did not have much effect initially. One reason was that the teachings of Wyclif had not ever been condemned by a council. Twenty-four of Wyclif’s propositions had been condemned by a synod in London in 1382, but this does not mean that he had the status of a heretic. It was common for a theologian to have some points that were seen as erroneous and still be seen as a valuable source on other issues. When the German masters at the University of Prague expanded the suspect propositions to forty-five, it still only represented forty-five statements out of volumes of work.

The anti-reformers at the university focused the debate on eucharistic theology. Hus’s opponents knew that Wyclif’s denial of the doctrine of transubstantiation was in clear opposition to defined doctrine. The German masters wove several propositions important to the Czech reform movement into a list that included Wyclif’s most clearly heretical statements. The strategy worked. Though Hus would eventually defend only five of Wyclif’s articles as having an orthodox meaning, his opponents were able to convince people that he had denied transubstantiation. Events in 1408 pushed this dispute out of the university and onto the stage of international affairs.

After several years of efforts, the German masters at the University of Prague had convinced the Roman pope, Gregory XII (1406-15), that there were problems with heresy in Bohemia. King Wenceslas, who had been deposed as emperor in 1400, was anxious to satisfy Gregory XII that he had purged the land of any heresy. Under pressure from the king, Archbishop Zbynek decided to move against the reformers. Hus was incensed and began to preach more publicly about heresy, simony, and the moral faults of the unreformed clergy. By September 1409, a group of clergy led by the German Dominicans charged Hus with making severe and critical statements about simony and the lives of the clergy. Hus easily defended himself and wrote a treatise explaining why it is permissible to speak charitably against the vices of the clergy, De arguendo clero pro concione.

After the Council of Pisa elected Pope Alexander V in June 1409, the archbishop was under increasing pressure to withdraw his obedience from Pope Gregory XII. When Alexander V started proceedings against Zbynek, the archbishop crumbled and switched his allegiance. As a concession, Archbishop Zbynek managed to obtain a bull from Alexander in December that condemned the forty-five articles and that forbade all preaching outside of diocesan and monastic churches. This last provision was aimed at Hus and the Bethlehem Chapel. Hus defied the bull and continued to preach. Alexander V died before he could act against Hus.

Once again, international affairs would intrude upon the work of the Czech reformers. After King Ladislas of Naples drove the Pisan Pope John XXIII out of Rome in 1411, Pope John XXIII issued a bull authorizing the sale of indulgences to support a crusade against Ladislas. The bull stated:

And also by apostolic authority granted me, I absolve you from all sins, if you are truly contrite and confess them to God and me. If you cannot personally take up the project [of joining the crusade], but wish to bring a contribution according to your ability in compliance with my and the commissioner’s terms in defense and aid of the above-named project I grant and concede you the fullest remission of all your sins, including punishment and guilt.

In order to bring in the support of secular rulers who were already wavering in their commitments to the Pisan papacy, John XXIII also had a provision that would give them a percentage of the revenues.

When Hus decided to oppose the bull authorizing the sale of indulgences, he must have suspected he would alienate his last powerful supporter, King Wenceslas. Hus’s zeal impelled him to throw caution to the wind and to publicly oppose the bull. He preached against the indulgences and held public disputations. Hus argued that it was improper for Christians to give money for the purpose of killing other Christians and that the pope and the clergy should not be fighting with the material sword or engaging in warfare. He also opposed the way the bull seemed to imply that no repentance was necessary for forgiveness. His critiques were perfectly orthodox on these points.

Wenceslas was furious and enlisted the aid of Hus’s opponents at the University of Prague to draft a series of articles that forbade preaching against the indulgences. Hus defended his opposition to the indulgences by citing the provision in canon law that whatever is contrary to the law of Christ is heretical and should not be obeyed.32 In a letter written in May 1412, Hus explained his actions:

‘As to my not obeying the wrong commands of my superiors, while offering no resistance to power which is of the Lord God, that I have been taught by the scriptures, and above all by the word and deed of the apostles who, against the will of the chief priests preached our Lord Jesus Christ’ saying that “we ought to obey God rather than rather than people.’

Like Gerson, Hus cited Acts 5:29 to show that the commands of superiors must be subjected to God’s law as expressed in scripture. To save the people of Prague from an impending papal interdict, which would have suspended all sacramental ministry as long as the people supported Hus, he voluntarily went into exile.

While Hus was in exile from Prague, he began to write a small tract called The Six Errors. He said he wanted it to be a shield for the people from the errors that the unreformed clergy were teaching in order to deny any accountability for their crimes. Some of the clergy were arguing that since a priest creates God’s body at the Eucharist, then a priest is the Father of God. As such, even a priest in mortal sin, which would include actions like simony or murder, cannot be called a servant of the devil. The antireformers used the eucharistic service of the priesthood to claim that the worst priest is better than the most virtuous member of the laity. According to Hus, these insane priests went so far as to exalt themselves over the Virgin Mary because she only bore Christ once whereas they create God repeatedly during the Masses they celebrate.

The second error had to do with the teaching that one must believe or have faith in Mary, the saints, and the pope. Hus argued that one must only believe in God and in what has been revealed in scriptures. The focus of his argument was on the claim that people had to believe in the pope. After discussing the high devotion that is due to Mary, he explained that we do not have faith in Mary. If we do not have faith in Mary, he reasoned, then it does not seem appropriate to have faith in the pope. Hus pointed to two scriptural passages to justify his position. The first was Peter’s denial of Christ (Matt 26:69-75), which was both apostasy and perjury; and the second was Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians to identify themselves as belonging to Jesus Christ rather than to Peter, Paul, or Apollos (1 Cor 1:11-17). The first example proved that Peter can be wrong and the second demonstrated we should only believe in Christ. To shore up his argument, Hus cited statements from both the Venerable Bede and Augustine to demonstrate his continuity with the church’s tradition.”

The third, fourth, and fifth errors all had to do with the authority of the clergy. The third error was that a priest forgives sins by his own will rather than acting as a minister proclaiming God’s forgiveness. This teaching would mean that a priest would have almost absolute power over his people’s eternal salvation as a matter of his own whims. The fourth error naturally flows from the third: One should always obey his or her ecclesiastical superiors. Hus responded by teaching the Czech people that they must evaluate the commands of their clergy in light of the teaching of the scriptures, which Hus used in a sense that would include traditional materials like Augustine or creeds. If a command violates the teaching of scripture, he advised people to disobey. The claim that the church can excommunicate people for any reason the authorities might give was the fifth error. Hus argued that the church could only excommunicate people for mortal sin.

The sixth error was at the heart of the various problems in the Bohemian clergy. Hus claimed that priests and bishops were preaching that they could legitimately buy and sell offices in the church. Others justified the idea that ecclesiastical offices could be granted or received for political purposes. Hus argued that the only reason for anyone to be admitted into holy orders was to serve the common good .  In each case, he cited scriptural authorities and traditional theologians like Augustine and Gregory the Great. To provide a permanent shield against these errors for the laity, Hus inscribed The Six Errors in Czech on the walls of the Bethlehem Chapel.

The Six Errors represents the heart of Hus’s reform agenda. He was retrieving a reform theme that runs through the writings of Gregory the Great, Peter Damian, and Pope Gregory VII: The clergy are accountable to their neighbors as well as to God. The test was whether or not the clergy were following the law of Christ and serving the common good. Gerson’s reform agenda was fundamentally similar to Hus’s, but Hus was teaching laypeople to be discerning when it came to the lives and demands of the clergy. Hus’s denial that the clergy are more a part of the church than the laity, his rejection of the claim that priests and bishops should be regarded as holy simply because of their offices, his argument that tithes should be freewill offerings, and his defense of the idea that civil authorities may legitimately deprive bishops and priests of their possessions certainly set men like Jean Gerson against him.”

Other aspects of Hus’s theology were even more provocative for Gerson’s ecclesiastical colleagues. For example, they were offended by his argument that the church should not put heretics to death because Christ did not execute people. Instead, Hus advocated following the rule laid down in Matthew 18:15-17, which advised shunning those who sin against the community as publicans or Gentiles. He also cited the examples of Augustine and the fathers who willingly entered into discourse with heretics and schismatics in order to persuade them to reconcile themselves to the church. Gerson’s colleagues at the Council of Constance were also more than a little upset to find that Hus had compared the guilt of the clergymen who turned innocent people over to the secular arm for execution to the guilt of the priests, scribes, and Pharisees who turned Christ over to Pilate.”

In the end, the council members were not moved by Hus’s arguments, and the trial of Jan Hus was a foregone conclusion from the outset. Hus found himself inextricably caught in the peculiarities of inquisitorial logic. Even so, he could have saved himself but refused to do so. By all accounts, the council members were hoping Hus would recant so that they would not have to execute him. Perhaps Hus was naive, but he failed to see that the bishops and lower clergy were not willing to reform their behavior. The problems associated with the bishops and lower clergy, including their accountability to the laity, would only begin to be addressed after the cataclysmic events of the Protestant Reformation. The focus at Constance was resolving the Great Schism and preventing new schisms in the future, and anyone who stood in the way would be sacrificed for restoring unity.”

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Love,
Matthew