“The Beatitudes rank high on the list of all-time favorite Bible passages. But what is “beatitude,” anyway? In the bible, a “blessed” person is someone who has received gifts of the greatest value, gifts that lead to true fulfillment and lasting happiness.
If I were to ask you to name the first beatitude, you’d probably say “blessed be the poor in Spirit.” According to St. Matthew’s gospel you’d be right, but not according to Luke. At the very beginning of his gospel, Luke reveals that the very first beatitude is uttered by a woman filled with the Spirit, speaking of another woman overshadowed by the Spirit. Elizabeth says, “Blessed is she who has believed.” (Luke 1: 45).
Is Marian devotion important in Christian life? This has been a bone of contention between Christians for nearly five hundred years.
Let’s look at the evidence in just the first chapter of Luke. First, the Angel Gabriel honors her with the greeting “Hail, full of grace” (Luke 1:29). Then Elizabeth prophesies “blessed are you among women.” Next the prophet John leaps for joy in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice. Then, in her response to Elizabeth, Mary prophesies “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48).
But it is Elizabeth’s final words to Mary that provide the key to understanding why Mary is to be honored, namely, her faith.
One of the battle-cries of the Protestant Reformation was “Faith Alone!” One key conviction that united the many disparate strands of the Reformation was that it is impossible to earn God’s favor by our good works . . . that rather we receive His love as a pure gift, a grace, through faith.
Now consider Mary. Did she crisscross the Mediterranean planting Churches like Paul? Did she give eloquent sermons like Stephen (Acts 7)? Did she govern the Church like Peter? No. Her claim to fame is that she simply said yes to God. She believed He could do as He said and would do as He said.
But true faith is not just intellectual conviction that God exists or that He can do thus and such. Faith involves entrusting oneself, abandoning oneself to God, willing to submit to His will. That’s why Paul talks about “the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26). Mary surrendered her plan for her life, and yielded to God’s plan. And she did this not once, but again and again, even when He left her behind to begin His public ministry. And when that ministry led to the horror of Calvary, Mary’s faith stood its ground at the foot of the cross.
So Catholics honor Mary for being the perfect example of the greatest Protestant virtue. Ironic isn’t it? And the deepest meaning of that disputed doctrine, the Immaculate Conception, is that it was the grace of God working mysteriously from the moment of her conception that made possible Mary’s exemplary life of faith. Even her faith is a gift of His grace. It’s all grace, according to Catholic doctrine.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary, of course, knew this. That’s why she responded to Elizabeth’s praise with the humble, exuberant prayer known as the Magnificat: She is like the crystal-clear pool that reflects the sun’s rays back to the heavens. So no one needs to fear that honor given her will detract from the majesty of her divine Son. She deflects all the praise given her right back to God, the source of her greatness.
So the answer is that Marian devotion is necessary in Christian life. But what is true devotion to Mary according to the fathers of the Second Vatican Council? Not sentimental piety or gullible preoccupation with every rumored apparition, but rather, imitation of her virtues, particularly her faith (Lumen Gentium 67).”
Magnificat anima mea Dominum,
et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salvatore meo,
quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae.
Ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes,
quia fecit mihi magna,
qui potens est,
et sanctum nomen eius,
et misericordia eius in progenies et progenies
Fecit potentiam in brachio suo,
dispersit superbos mente cordis sui;
deposuit potentes de sede
et exaltavit humiles;
esurientes implevit bonis
et divites dimisit inanes.
Suscepit Israel puerum suum,
sicut locutus est ad patres nostros,
Abraham et semini eius in saecula
Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto,
Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper,
et in Saecula saeculorum. Amen. – Lk 1:45-56.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on His lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is His Name.
He has mercy on those who fear Him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of His arm,
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of His servant Israel
for He has remembered His promise of mercy,
the promise He made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever. Amen. -Lk 1:45-56.
It is not my natural inclination to rain on anyone else’s parade. Life is hard enough. Go have your parade, with blessing. However, it is an act of Christian charity to speak the Truth in Love. I realize I have a problem with the Truth. I like it too much. I love it. I adore it. I worship it. I like being in hot water. It keeps me clean!!! 🙂
“My new book, The Protestant’s Dilemma, shows in a myriad of ways why Protestantism is implausible. We sifted through many arguments to boil the book down to the most essential. A few chapters didn’t make the cut but are still good enough to share. Here’s one of them.
If Protestantism is true,
There’s no way to know whether you’re assenting to divine revelation or to mere human opinion about divine revelation.
Protestants and Catholics both believe that God has revealed himself to man over the course of human history, culminating in his ultimate self-revelation in Jesus Christ. But whereas Catholics believe that Christ founded a visible Church—which subsists in the Catholic Church—and has protected its doctrines from error, Protestants reject the notion of ecclesial infallibility, maintaining that no person, church, or denomination has been preserved from error in its teachings. Which means that anyone could be wrong, and no person or institution can be trusted with speaking the truth of divine revelation without error.
“No one is infallible.” If Protestantism has a universal belief, this is it.Luther pioneered this idea when he asserted that popes and Church councils had erred. If they had erred, it meant God had not guided them into all truth; instead, he allowed them to fall into error and, worse, to proclaim error as truth.
And so the most a Protestant can do is tentatively assent to doctrinal statements made by his church, pastor, or denomination, since those statements, being fallible, could be substantively changed at some time in the future. We see this all the time in Protestantism, most commonly when a Protestant leaves one church for another due to doctrinal disagreement, especially after his church changed its position on an issue he considered important.
Consider the question of same-sex “marriage.” Until quite recently, all Protestant denominations taught this was a contradiction in terms. But now many have modified or even completely reversed this doctrine. Those Protestants who accept this new teaching believe that the old one was wrong—an erroneous human opinion that became enshrined in their church’s statement of faith. They can do this confidently, knowing that none of their fellow church members can plausibly claim that it contradicts an irreformable dogma that was infallibly revealed by God.
Ultimately, then, a Protestant (who remains Protestant) studies the relevant sources—Scripture, history, the writings of authoritative figures in his tradition—and chooses the Protestant denomination that most aligns with his judgment. But then, they say, Catholics do the same thing: studying the sources and then choosing the Catholic Church based on their own judgment. So they see no difference in this regard.
Because Catholicism is true,
Christians can know divine revelation, as distinct from mere human opinion, because God protects it from authoritatively teaching anything that is false.
How is the Catholic’s judgment different from a Protestant’s, if at all? The difference lies in the conclusion, or finishing point, of the inquiry they make. Whereas the Protestant can ultimately submit only to his own judgment, which he knows to be fallible, the Catholic can confidently render total assent to the proclamations of the visible Church that Christ established and guides, submitting his judgments to its judgments as to Christ’s.
And so a Catholic can know divine revelation, as distinct from human opinion, by looking to the Church, which speaks with Christ’s voice and cannot lie. For a Protestant, only the Bible itself contains God’s infallibly inspired words, so he desires to assent to that. But since the Bible must be interpreted by someone, the closest he can come to assenting to biblical teaching is assenting to his own fallible interpretation of it. And assenting to yourself is no assent at all.
The Protestant’s Dilemma
If Protestantism is true, all are fallible. So the Protestant must rely on his own judgment above that of his church. And the orthodoxy of the church itself is judged against his interpretation of the Bible.Thus is becomes impossible to distinguish between what divine revelation actually is versus what a fallible human being thinks it is. This fact makes the Catholic Church, philosophically speaking, preferable to Protestantism, since God’s truth can be known—and known with certainty.”
-by Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a former Evangelical Protestant, graduate of Bob Jones University, turned Anglican priest, turned Catholic priest.
“The ecumenical teams for Lutherans and Catholics have been hard at it and produced a new document on Church, Eucharist and Ministry called Declaration on the Way.
It’s all full of enthusiastic and optimistic language about how Lutherans and Catholics are all starting to agree after 500 years.
I hate to be a party pooper, but like the ecumenical talks with the Anglicans, it seems to me that we are further apart than ever before on some very key issues and that on these issues which are so divisive we are on ever widening tangents.
You remember Chesterton’s observation, “When two paths begin to diverge the gap between them always widens.”
The language of these ecumenical documents is always very elastic. The participants efforts to agree are laudable. We all want church unity, but too often they seem to be straining at gnats and swallowing camels.
In order to find “points of convergence” the dialogue masters find minor points of agreement, pump them up and then deflate the larger and more important points of disagreement that remain.
My other grumble about this sort of thing is that the language, in an attempt to be diplomatic and find points of agreement is invariably ambiguous, vague and deliberately confusing, and where it is not all this it is contradictory and illogical.
The attempts to find points of convergence must be balanced with a clear understanding of the truth.(Ed. PLEASE! PLEASE! PLEASE! DO NOT confuse consensus with Truth! If everyone agrees, that does not make it TRUE! And, if everyone disagrees that does not make it untrue!) We must agree on the truth (not really, I take Fr Longnecker’s point here clearly, but as I just said, the Truth is the Truth, More is not Better, often, Better is Better, always, whether we like it, dislike it, agree with it or not, hence the definition of the word Truth = Veritas,”Moral principles do not depend on a majority vote. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong. Right is right, even if nobody is right.” Venerable Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen), not agree on some vague re-formulation of “belief statements.” (This is why classical Christianity has a CREED!!!! Every syllable of which has had wars fought over it!!! Every syllable of which has had much blood spilled over it!! Perhaps I dramatize a little, but not THAT much!)
Here’s an example in a passage about women’s ordination for example. Fr Longnecker’s comments are in BOLD.
“Most Lutheran member churches of the LWF hold themselves free under the gospel to ordain women. Why is that? They see in this practice “a renewed understanding of the biblical witness” which reflects “the nature of the church as a sign of our reconciliation and unity in Christ through baptism across the divides of ethnicity, social status and gender” OK. They’re going to change the ordained ministry and admit women. (Lund Statement, § 40). At the same time, “it can be said that in general the Lutheran churches which have introduced the ordination of women do not intend a change of either the dogmatic understanding or the exercise of the ministerial office” (Ministry, § 25).OK We’ve changed the understanding of the ordained ministry but we do not intend to change the understanding of the ordained ministry. Significantly, churches in the LWF that do ordain women and those that do not have remained in communion with one another.
The Catholic Church does not consider itself as authorized to ordain women. Nevertheless, in The Ministry in the Church the international dialogue commission affirmed that the Catholic Church “is able to strive for a consensus on the nature and significance of the ministry without the different conceptions of the persons to be ordained fundamentally endangering such a consensus and its practical consequences for the growing unity of the church” (§ 25). This is gobbledegook. So the Catholics also want to have their cake and eat it. We are not going to ordain women but we think ordaining women doesn’t really matter. Really?”
Most worrying about this starry eyed optimism is the head in the sand attitude of those involved in the dialogue. Both the Catholics and Lutherans involved seem blind to the fact that most Lutherans don’t give two hoots about unity with the Catholics.
They’re like the Anglicans.
I can remember when I was an Anglican seminarian and found myself debating women’s ordination with a female theology student.
I said, “But women’s ordination will present a serious obstacle in the path to unity with Catholics.”
“Good God!” she exclaimed, “I don’t want to be a Catholic! What on earth do we want unity with them for?”
Whenever one of these documents from the ecumenicists came back to the Church of England General Synod it was invariably shot down–not by the Catholics, but by the Anglicans. When I was a priest in the Church of England the ARCIC folks came back all warm and fuzzy with a document about Eucharist, Ministry and Church. Oh, there was so much agreement! There were so many “points of convergence.” Then when it went to the CofE General Synod for approval it crashed and burned. Both the liberals who hate the Catholic Church for being so conservative and the Evangelicals who hate the Catholic Church for being Catholic shot it full of holes and it died a quiet and dignified death.
The worst thing about this document is the recommendation that Catholics and Lutherans perhaps should begin receiving communion together (Intercommunion, General Prohibition Concerning, Canon 844). “It suggests that the expansion of opportunities for Catholics and Lutherans to receive Holy Communion together would be a sign of the agreements already reached and the distance traveled.”
When speaking about intercommunion I often say being in communion with the Catholic Church is like being married. You either are or you are not. If you are you can make love together if you are not you shouldn’t. To do so is either fornication or adultery. (THINK about the word!! INTERCOMMUNION, to be in UNION within! As a visible sign! Tangible act! Finally, more than just WORDS! VERY, VERY PUBLIC ACT & WITNESS!!! And, there are now witnesses to your very, very public act and witness of affirmation of union within another denomination, affirming ALL THEY hold and believe to be True!!! Now, answer the question whether you should receive outside your denomination? Intercommune? Are YOU, PLURAL, NOT SINGULAR!!!, as a member or your union, your denomination, in UNION? Within? Do you hold and believe to be True ALL this other union holds to be true? Do you even understand ALL this other union holds to believe to be true? This is the GRAVE & SOLEMN statement you give whenever you receive communion!!! Whenever!!!! Appreciate THIS the next time and every time thereafter you are in line to receive!!!! LORD, MAKE ME WORTHY!!!!! ONLY GOD CAN!!!) 🙂
To extend the analogy, for Lutherans and Catholics to start sharing communion before full unity has been achieved is a bit like saying, “Bob and Sally have had a wonderful vacation together, so they should wind up their fun time by jumping in the sack together.”
In other words, “Let’s celebrate full communion while we do not have full communion.” (HERESY!! HERESY!! HERESY!! “Hello? Inquisition? Come, right away!! I’d like to report…”)
Once we cut through all the obfuscation, diplomatic double talk and intellectual mumbo jumbo that’s what it comes down to.
One final note: I can remember as an Anglican reading in the gospel that Christ called for their to be one flock and one shepherd.
I asked myself what I could do to help promote church unity and I realized that there was one, solid, sure and positive thing I, as one Christian, could do to bring about church unity.
–Jim Papandrea, PhD, taught me my course in Church History for my catechectical certification in the Archdiocese of Chicago. I also know him from Holy Family Parish, Inverness, IL.
Q. There are a number of books out on the writings and teachings of the Church Fathers. How is yours different?
A. This book doesn’t just talk about the Church Fathers and their teachings, it demonstrates how the Catholic Faith today is consistent with the faith and teachings of the Church Fathers. One of my goals for this book is to show that continuity, which was one of the things that drew me back to the Church. In my study of the early Church, I realized that what the Catholic Church teaches is pretty much what the early Christians believed, and what the early bishops and theologians taught. And that continuity between the faith of the early Christians and of the Catholic Church today is part of what led me to say, “I have to be part of this.”
Q. Why do you think most Protestants refuse to accept or even consider the writings of the Fathers and the practices of the early Church?
A. I think in general Protestants are gaining an appreciation for the Church Fathers, though it can often be very selective. But there is an assumption within the Protestant mentality—a modernist assumption—that people who lived more recently are necessarily smarter than people who lived a long time ago. That’s an oversimplification of it, but the point is that in many ways the Reformation plays into the Enlightenment idea that what is newer is somehow automatically better than what is older—that cutting ties to a tradition might be better than holding on to the tradition. Again, I’m over-simplifying here, but this allows Protestants today to treat important aspects of the early Church as quaint but outdated and to assume that we now know better. For example, when I teach my Protestant students that the Church has always believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, many of them are perfectly comfortable accepting this and yet continuing to hold a theology of the Eucharist that is strictly symbolic or memorialist, without feeling any need to consider that maybe the long history of belief in Real Presence says something about the truth of that doctrine.
Q. Which Church Father has the most to offer the modern-day reader when it comes to giving an overview of how the early Church practiced?
A. That’s a tough question, because all the Fathers offer a different perspective. It would be a little like asking which of the four Gospels has the most to offer when it comes to giving an overview of Jesus’ life. We need all four, because they give us four different perspectives. We also have to remember that, like many of the New Testament documents, the writings of the Fathers were meant to address specific situations, and so we don’t get anything like a systematic theology until the Middle Ages. Personally, I gravitate toward the Western Fathers. For doctrine, Tertullian and Novatian are extremely important, but they were rigorists, and Novatian was eventually a schismatic. So they’re a mixed bag. I like Ambrose and Leo. Many scholars would probably say Augustine, but he had his issues, too, and the Church rejected a significant portion of his teachings (e.g., election). On the other hand, most of the major controversies were in the East, and we can’t understand the results of those doctrinal debates without the likes of Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, not to mention the Cappadocians. If I were to suggest some of the writings of the Church Fathers to a modern-day reader who wants a good introduction to the primary sources, I would say begin with some of the earliest ones and their most important or most accessible documents. That would be Justin Martyr (I Apology) and Irenaeus of Lyons (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching). Other interesting early documents would include the letters of Ignatius of Antioch and the Diary of Perpetua.
Q. Although the doctrine of purgatory isn’t taught explicitly in Scripture, it is referred to implicitly. Give some other examples of current Catholic practices that are found throughout the writings of the Fathers but seem to be absent from Scripture.
A. Most of the Marian doctrines probably fall into this category: the Immaculate Conception, the perpetual virginity, and the Assumption. But in the book I show how they are doctrines that logically result from our beliefs about Christ and that these ideas were already present in the faith of the early Church. The Hail Mary, like purgatory, is one of those things that Protestants might argue is not in Scripture, and yet it is based on Scripture and reflects Catholic understanding of Scripture.
Q. From an apologetic standpoint, are the teachings of the Fathers a good way to break down someone’s adherence to the notion of sola scriptura?
A. It worked with me. To be fair, the Reformers had a healthier view of Scripture and Tradition than people today who hold to a strict version of sola scriptura. But what you find when you study the history of the Church is that sola scripture leads to heresy, since heresy is the result of trying to interpret Scripture out of context, without the checks and balances of Tradition (i.e., interpretive precedent). At the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, the Arians were the sola scriptura party. If the Church had held to sola scriptura, it would call into question the doctrine of the Trinity—the very doctrine that defines Christianity. Now, to be clear, the doctrine of the Trinity does come from Scripture, but the word Trinity does not, and our understanding of the Trinity is the result of the interpretation of Scripture. To put it another way, if we held to a strict understanding of sola scriptura, we would not have the Nicene Creed, which is another defining element of Christianity. And yet the Creed is actually a summary of what we learn from Scripture. So to reject the authority of Tradition is to ignore the ways in which our ancestors in the Faith interpreted Scripture and to try to reinvent the wheel and do interpretation in a vacuum, cut off from those who went before us. These are the things you realize when you read the Fathers.
Q. It seems that rejection of authority has always been an issue, from the fall of Adam and Eve to the Arian heresy to the Protestant Reformation and beyond. Taking that rejection into another sphere, would you say that rejection of authority (in this case of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution) has led to a similar outcome in the current moral climate in America?
A. Yes, I think so. But it’s also a rejection of tradition. That same humanist/enlightenment mentality that says what is newer is automatically better, and that people who live now are necessarily more enlightened than those who lived in the ancient world, has led to a kind of relativism that makes the individual his or her own highest authority. None of what came before me—whether it’s authoritative writings (Scripture, the Constitution) or authoritative Tradition—carries as much weight as what I think, because I should have the last word on what is right and wrong, at least for me. If I disagree with the authority or the Tradition, then the authority or Tradition must be wrong and should be changed. That’s the mentality we’re dealing with.
Q. What Did the Church Fathers Say About Purgatory?
A. From a time even before the earliest surviving quotes from the Church Fathers on this subject, we know that the belief in purgatory existed among the grassroots of the faithful. A second-century document known as The Acts of Paul, which contains the story of the “The Acts of Paul and Thecla,” mentions the practice of prayer for the dead in such a way as to imply a belief in purgatory—and it does this as though its readers should not be surprised by it. Although this document is not authoritative for the Church, it does show that as early as the second century, a writer could take it for granted that Christians believed that it was beneficial to pray for the souls of the dead, which also tells us that they believed in purgatory. Another famous document, the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, is actually the diary of an early third-century martyr, Perpetua, executed for her faith as public entertainment in an arena in North Africa in the year 203. In this story, as well, it is assumed that those who have died can benefit from the intercession of the living.
Let’s look at what some of the Church Fathers had to say about Purgatory…
St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (c. 250)
Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage, in North Africa, during one of the worst and most devastating persecutions the early Church faced at the hands of the Roman Empire. In a letter, he explains the difference between those who are forgiven for their sins by the Church and those who die as martyrs:
“It is one thing to stand for pardon, another thing to attain to glory: it is one thing, when cast into prison, not to go out thence until one has paid the uttermost farthing; another thing at once to receive the wages of faith and courage. It is one thing, tortured by long suffering for sins, to be cleansed and long purged by fire; another to have purged all sins by suffering. It is one thing, in fine, to be in suspense till the sentence of God at the day of judgment; another to be at once crowned by the Lord.”
Cyprian asserts that those who die as martyrs have no need of the purification of purgatory, for they “have purged all sins by suffering,” and “at once receive the wages of faith and courage,” which is, “to be at once crowned by the Lord.” On the other hand, those who do not die as martyrs suffer a different kind of torture, that is, they suffer grief for their sins. They are “tortured by long suffering for sins, to be cleansed and long purged by fire…” This is clearly a reference to purgatory.
Lactantius, lay teacher of North Africa (c. 300)
Similarly, Lactantius wrote that it was possible for a person to reach a point of sanctification in this life which would exempt him from purgatory, but that this was not likely, since for most of us our sins outweigh our goodness.
“But when he shall have judged the righteous, he will also try them with fire. Then they whose sins shall exceed either in weight or in number, shall be scorched by the fire and burnt.”
It would be a mistake to read this as physical fire. Lactantius seems to have understood the fire as “real,” in a way, but he described it as a kind of spiritual fire that would purify souls.
St. Gregory, bishop of Nyssa (c. 380)
Bishop Gregory preached a sermon on the dead, in which he combined his understanding of 1 Corinthians 3:15 with 2 Peter 1:4, which says we “may become partakers of the divine nature.” But, Gregory wrote, no one is “able to partake of divinity until he has been purged.
It should be clear from our brief study that anti-Catholic legends claiming that the concept of purgatory was invented in the early Middle Ages are untrue. There are many other early Church Fathers that could be quoted here, including Hilary of Poitiers, John Chrysostom, and Gregory the Great, but it will suffice to conclude with Augustine.”
The theory goes like this: Just a few centuries after Christ’s death, around the time the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, the true Faith suffered a catastrophic falling-away. The simple truths of the gospel became so obscured by worldliness and pagan idolatry—kicking off the Dark Ages of Catholicism—that Christianity required a complete reboot.
This idea of a “Great Apostasy” is one of the cornerstones of American Protestantism, along with Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even Islam. Countless millions today profess a faith built on the assumption that the early Church quickly became broken beyond repair, requiring some new prophet or reformer to restore the “pure” teaching of Jesus and the apostles.
This theory is popular… but it’s also fiction. Here are excerpts from an interview with author Rod Bennett.
Q: What is the Great Apostasy?
A. It’s one of the cornerstones of American religion, actually—the notion that the original Church founded by Jesus and his apostles went bust somewhere along the line and had to be restored by some latter-day prophet or reformer. Most of our Christian denominations here in the Unites States teach the idea in one form or another, though, significantly, they usually disagree completely on which “Second Founder” ought to be followed.
Usually they date the collapse to the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in A.D. 313 and his subsequent adoption of Christianity for the whole Roman Empire. In doing this, he transformed the Christian Church (or so the story goes) from a simple body of pure, New Testament believers into the state religion of the Roman Empire. This made Church membership socially advantageous for the first time, which brought in a vast flood of half-converted pagans who were admitted with minimal fuss by a mere external act of baptism. And this, in turn, subverted the original Faith so seriously that a Dark Age of idolatry and superstition was the result, a “great falling away” so serious that it required, in the end, a complete “reboot” from heaven.
Q: Where did the notion of the Great Apostasy find its beginnings?
A. Well, if you think about it, any group that has a short historical pedigree—founded, as most of our denominations have been, within the last few centuries of Christianity’s very long timeline—will be driven to the idea eventually. If you find that your church was founded in the twentieth century (or the nineteenth or the sixteenth) and teaches things no one was teaching in the fourteenth, the tenth, or the fifth century, then you’re going to have to account for that fact somehow. And the most common solution has been to offer a “conspiracy theory” of some kind: this idea that the early Church actually did teach Jehovah’s Witness or Seventh-day Adventism or Unitarianism or what have you, but the “powers that be” hushed the original version up—burned their books, forced them underground, and so forth. The whole “Da Vinci Code” phenomenon from a few years back was based on the same idea.
Q: Are there differences in the ways that Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, and Protestants view the Great Apostasy?
A. Many Protestant groups would try to differentiate their view by holding that the original Church didn’t actually become apostate but was simply obscured for a thousand years or so, leaving a “remnant” of true believers hiding somewhere in secret, waiting to reemerge. They often tell their members (without any evidence to back up the assertion) that the true Christians had been there, alright, thinking and worshipping just as we do here at our church today, only the authorities of the day doctored up the records so that no trace of their existence has been left behind. Or, occasionally, fundamentalist groups will send inquirers to shabby, disreputable sects like the Montanists and the Albigenses as examples of God’s true remnant. These, oddly, always turn out to be weird Gnostic sects whose real doctrine (as far as we can reconstruct it) was as divergent from their own as any other brand of “dark ages” Christianity.
Another set of voices, on the other hand, more moderate in tone, sometimes takes the opposite tack, directing us to examples of genuine Christianity lingering within the mainstream of Dark Ages religion. Ambrose, Augustine, Thomas à Kempis, even Francis of Assisi are sometimes cited as “crypto-Evangelicals”—genuine Spirit-filled Christians struggling to survive amidst the general wreck of the Church, and secretly on the outs somehow with the authorities of their day.
Q: What is wrong with the popular notions that most people believe about the “Dark Ages”?
A. Mostly, they’re just historical nonsense. If the term is used strictly—which it almost never is—to refer to the chaotic period following the collapse of Roman rule in Western Europe (the Eastern Empire continued to thrive for another thousand years), then the phrase Dark Ages can have some limited meaning. But most of the time it’s just a ghost story spun almost purely out of the imaginations of anti-Catholic (and often just plain old anti-Christian) historians of the so-called “Enlightenment” of the eighteenth century.
Q. Early on in your book you refer to the “Ghetto Church”—can you explain what you mean?
A. Central to most “Great Apostasy” theories is the notion that the underground Church prior to Constantine—during the late 200s and early 300s A.D., that is—retained the innocence and purity of Bible times but lost these qualities when the Christian faith was legalized. But in reality, the Church was not underground at all during that period. The catacombs had been left far behind by then; Christians of the mid to late third century had no need to hide their faith, and they did not hide it. The Church owned property during this period and built churches on it. And though still on the books, all of the laws against Christianity were routinely winked at during those years, and the Church was a well-known, well-recognized segment of Roman society. For these reasons, I’ve compared the Roman Christian population of the third century to the Jews in Europe prior to World War II: living in their own enclaves, close to their places of worship; talking, dressing, thinking, believing differently than their neighbors . . . and disliked precisely because of their ubiquity—and their growing influence. This is what I mean by “the Ghetto Church.”
This Church, incidentally, wasn’t, alas, very pure or innocent, either. The records show that it had nearly as much doctrinal impurity as it did after Christianity was legalized—and much greater moral laxity.
Q. As revered as Constantine is in Church history, he did, in fact, seem to behave like so many politicians in the modern day, constantly changing his stance. Do you have any sense as to where his heart really was in regard to the Church? Was there a true faith there, or did he just see the Church as a means to an end?
A. Well, there’s lots of evidence that Constantine considered himself a Christian, at any rate. He immediately outlawed many of the worst atrocities of the arena—death by lions, for instance—and Eusebius tells us that he did so much testifying in his own palace that the members of his court found it wearisome. But there’s also no question that he believed the change would be beneficial to his Empire. Here’s an analogy that I used in the book: “Imagine, for instance, a man who falls genuinely in love with a goodhearted, beautiful, and very rich woman. Exactly what role will her wealth play—in his own mind and in the suspicions of others—as he decides whether or not to take her as his wife? Does he himself even know? Or will he not always be accused of mercenary motives, not only by unsympathetic outsiders but even, at times, by his own uncertain conscience? Constantine’s situation was very much like this. Yes, he found the Christian Church to be uniquely useful toward achieving his goals, as the leaven of Christianity will always be useful to the health of a society. Does that prove that this was his only—or even his primary—reason for getting involved with her? How could we ever know, if even the Emperor himself might not have been entirely sure?”
“The Catholic parish of St. Joseph’s — now run by the Dominican Order — worships in the oldest Catholic church building in Manhattan. Built in 1833, it served the community of Greenwich Village before there was Central Park, the Empire State building or even the subway. Far from being a museum or mere relic of the past, the parish today ministers to college students and professionals — those who have been in New York their whole lives, and those visiting just for the weekend. Each Mass is filled with women and men of different backgrounds and nationalities.
Dorothy Day prayed here. There is a soup kitchen that serves hundreds each week. A parish elementary school is right next door.
St. Joseph’s is also neighbor to the famous Stonewall Inn and has served the spiritual needs of its visitors as well. But in the face of the latest same-sex marriage ruling, the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church on marriage has frustrated activists who want religious organizations to either bring their teachings into accord with the newest cause or to be limited from full civic participation, and thus punish long-serving institutions that will not submit to their demands.
After the Obergefell decision, Time magazine writer Mark Oppenheimer was quick to declare that the state should “abolish, or greatly diminish” property tax exemptions for churches that “dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality.”
Punishing “dissent” seems a strange new role for the American government. In the mid-twentieth century, the Catholic church was a leading advocate against anti-miscegenation laws. The church was able to take a stand contrary to the state on marriage and not be penalized for it, a position now almost unquestionably supported by Americans. And despite the confidence of those like Oppenheimer, the dissenters aren’t even a minority in the more recent marriage controversy. Most Americans favor religious liberty, and a plurality oppose Obergefell.
Allowing conscientious objection is an acknowledgment that the state does not have all the answers. The state has an obligation to make laws, but the state has no obligation to be correct. The independent voices that critique the state make the state better, and should not be silenced. Lose churches, lose the independent voices that prevent the state from having an absolute say in complicated moral matters.
In addition to the alternative moral voice that the church provides, the Catholic church is one of the leading charitable institutions in the country. But this matters little to a militant ideological movement that, intending to prevent discrimination, has prevented churches from doing certain charitable activities and seeks to “ostracize” them even more. The first wave has been the shutting down of decades-old Catholic adoption services around the country, including in the Archdiocese of Washington. The next wave, hinted at by Justice Samuel Alito and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, will be universities and educational institutions — including the many Catholic schools for the underprivileged. And after that will be the places of worship themselves.
Oppenheimer identifies the real problem with dissolving tax exemptions, too, though in a dismissive and historically illiterate manner. Churches in important locations will be penalized for the simple reason of where they were built. “If it’s important to the people of Fifth Avenue to have a synagogue like Emanu-El or an Episcopal church like St. Thomas in their midst, they should pay full freight for it.” Parishes like St. Dominic’s in Washington or St. Joseph’s in Greenwich Village could be added to this list. But they were built for everyone, rich and poor, and their work should not be penalized because property values have skyrocketed as decades have gone by. Removing the tax-exempt status of churches simply adds an additional tax to regular churchgoers, and most of the congregations at these historical places of worship couldn’t sustain the property taxes for more than a few months. If they can’t foot the bill, local places of worship will simply have to close, and with them the community services they provide.
Losing a local church would be damaging to its worshippers and the community at large, but even still, the resilience of the faithful can overcome the limitations of property loss and a lack of governmental support. That said, it is in the state’s best interest to protect those voices that at the moment respectfully oppose its laws. By prohibiting faith-based conscientious objection, institutions will be limited in their ability to speak independently without fear of punishment, and some of the largest charities in America will be shuttered. Churches have defended and served the American people both spiritually and materially for hundreds of years. Now it’s time to defend the church.”
“When the people of Israel complained against God during their wandering in the desert, God sent saraph serpents among them. It was not until Moses, at the Lord’s command, raised a serpent on a pole that all who looked upon it were cured (Num 21:6-9). The Church Fathers saw in this a prefigurement of Christ’s mounting on the cross, a promise that future generations would be saved by considering His passion and contemplating its instrument, the cross.
From this belief arose both the practice of concentrating on a crucifix when praying and today’s feast, the Exaltation of the Cross, which honors the cross’ instrumental role in the salvation of the world. Yet, if Christ’s crucifixion occurred during the Feast of Passover in the springtime, why does the Church celebrate His cross on September 14, roughly five months later? To discover the answer, one must look to the earliest centuries of Christianity.
The hostility of Jewish leaders and the persecution of Roman authorities made it difficult for Christians to frequent places associated with the life of Christ. Moreover, the province of Judea was thrust into turmoil by three revolts against Roman authority in the century following Christ’s ascension (Jerusalem was razed in 70 AD and rebuilt as a Roman city in 135 AD). Nevertheless, the Christians of the Holy Land strove to preserve orally their knowledge of the locations associated with Christ’s life. Their efforts would bear fruit two centuries later.
Born of humble parentage in the middle of the third century in Asia Minor, St. Helena married an ambitious Roman soldier named Constantius and bore him a son, Constantine, in 272 AD. Though Constantius, who eventually became emperor, cast aside his wife for a more advantageous match, his son nevertheless remained faithful to her. When Constantine himself became the first Christian emperor of Rome, he honored his mother with the title of ‘Augusta’ and converted her to Christianity. The saint took to her new religion zealously, impressing her contemporaries with her abundant virtue.
When Constantine conquered the eastern half of the Roman Empire in 323 AD, at long last, Christians in the Holy Land could worship openly. In thanksgiving for his successes, the emperor ordered a number of churches be built with public funds at Christian sites throughout the Levant.
Despite being well into her seventies, St. Helena burned with a desire to walk the ground her Savior’s feet had trodden. Shortly after the Council of Nicaea, she set out on a pilgrimage to pray for her son and grandchildren, visiting numerous churches and bishops along the way and generously aiding the needy. However, she found that some holy places had been forgotten, while others were occupied by pagan temples to discourage worship. In Jerusalem, the site of the Lord’s burial had been itself buried under a mound of earth and surmounted by a temple to Venus; St. Helena ordered the temple razed, the earth removed, and a monumental church erected on the site.
The cross, too, had been hidden by the Jews, cast into a ditch or well and covered over. Moved by the Holy Spirit, St. Helena had sought it during her pilgrimage. Upon reaching Jerusalem, she prayed that the cross might not remain hidden and, lo and behold, three crosses were found among the rubble heaped over Holy Sepulchre.
Identifying the True Cross by its inscription, St. Helena rejoiced and sent the nails to her son, one for his crown and another for his bridle, a reminder, according to St. Ambrose, that rulers must be mindful of Christ and, by His grace, curb their appetites. St. Helena and St. Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem, confirmed the identity of the cross by laying it alongside the body of a dying man, who miraculously recovered.
St. Helena died shortly after returning to Rome at the age of eighty. The church she ordered constructed over the Holy Sepulchre was completed in 335 AD and dedicated on September 14, when the cross was brought outside for the veneration of the faithful. St. Helena’s discovery of the cross and the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre have been celebrated jointly from the fourth century onward.
Medieval and Renaissance depictions of religious events are often, at first glance, puzzling: Christ is shown teaching not on the shore of Galilee but along the coast of Geneva, with its mountains and gothic spires; the martyrs tormented not by Roman centurions but Italian condottierri. Surely the artists knew better! In fact, most of them did. Yet they wished to impress upon their viewers that sacred history is not mythology: the gospels and the lives of the saints describe real events that happened to real people, as real as the windmills of Holland or the towns of the Rhineland.
Similarly, today’s feast and the life of St. Helena remind us of the fullness of Christ’s Incarnation: the Lord is not merely a tale told to children, nor simply a concept bandied about by theologians. Rather, in partaking of our humanity, He shared in our particularity. He lived not once upon a time, but at that time; not somewhere, but there; and He suffered, not in the abstract, but concretely, upon a cross, the fragments of which the faithful can venerate to this day. St. Helena, pray for us that we may never forget the historicity of Christ.”
“And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.” —Justin Martyr, I Apol. 67 (~A.D. 150-155)
(By the way, there’s a little joke in there. The Hebrew tattoo deliberately incorrectly spells God’s name. Instead of God’s name (יהוה ), it says, ויהי , translated, “And it came to pass” or “And it was so.” Of course the joke here is that people who get Hebrew tattoos really do not know how to read Hebrew at all.)
Worship, by definition, I believe, is not about us, whether we like it, or whether it entertains us. Now, what could it be about? Think. Think. Think. Nope! Nothing. De gustibus non est disputandum. Why do we go to Mass? To get to Heaven. Not to be entertained. Not that simply attending Mass will merit us anything, but as an aid and a command the Lord has given us to perform in worship of Him. It is NOT something anyone owes us, but something, very rather, we owe HIM, in justice, in gratitude, for our very lives, and all the joys therein. We owe Him.
It is NOT optional, in fact, missing Mass for less than a really good reason, ie. illness, is a sin, a mortal sin, which kills the life of grace within; if, you want to get to Heaven. Like it or not. Plain & simple truth, whether you like it or not.
Don’t want to go to Heaven? Don’t go to Mass. We ARE in radical agreement. But, don’t expect any help in the form of grace in life, though. And, just one day, just one day, actually there are many, you just might need that grace to make it through the day, another day, ONLY through grace.
From my reading, Jesus will not say to us in our particular judgment, yeah, that’s in the deal, too, “No Mass? No problem!” That’s just how I, imho, read the scriptures. Others may agree.
That, imho, again, is NOT to say we always shouldn’t offer our best: our best preaching, our best music, our best reading, our best singing, our best worship of Him. There is nothing wrong with joyful worship. There is nothing wrong with reverential worship. We can always improve. It is the very definition of fallen human beings.
And, finally, if we are to “Love one another” as He has loved us, where better to begin in charity than in the Mass, attending despite less than inspiring preaching, rote ritual, or less than angelic music, or despite, yet another collection, or perpetual fund-raising activity, festival, parish-wide garage sale, or other trivial, distracting announcement, that seem to be an ever present obstacle to profound surrender in worship to the Divine. To, in all of this, mis-worship, cry out in our heart of hearts, just like the worshiping tax collector, Lk 18:13, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
“In an all-too-common tragedy these days, a poorly catechized Catholic attends a worship service at a megachurch, mistakenly believing the worship service simply to be a modern, non-Catholic version of the Mass. The Catholic feels emotionally drawn to the megachurch worship service and decides Mass, in comparison, is boring. A typical view might be, “Wow, I’m being fed here like I’m not being fed at Mass.”
The American Heritage Dictionary defines megachurch as “a large, independent, usually nondenominational worship group, especially one formed as an offshoot of a Protestant church. Also called seeker church.”
“Large” is right. Among the better known megachurches are Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston (attendance 43,500), Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago (attendance 23,000), and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church (attendance 20,000) in my backyard in Orange County, California.
Many megachurches are known for their concert-style worship services, consisting of passionate preaching accompanied by emotionally driven music.
I often hear stories about local Catholics in my diocese who venture into one of Saddleback’s worship services—only to be “sold” on this new style of worship, and never again to return to the Catholic Mass.
“Something for Everyone”
From a superficial perspective it’s easy to see why ill-informed Catholics can be drawn in so easily. A quick visit to Saddleback’s Web site (saddleback.com) reveals a veritable menu of Sunday worship services to satisfy the taste of just about any self-indulgent seeker. For example, consider these six offerings, as described on the site:
Worship Center Times: You’ll engage in an array of contemporary worship music and enjoy live teaching that is video cast to our other venues.
Fuel Times: FUEL is our newest venue for young adults ages 20s to 30s (but everyone is welcome). Join us in Refinery main auditorium for live teaching, worship, food, and relationship building. All of this and more, packed into a shorter service.
Overdrive Times: This service is filled with guitar-driven, rock-infused worship sure to amplify your experience. You’ll feel like you’re worshiping in a musical concert setting! The message will follow, video cast live from the Worship Center.
Praise Times: This venue is filled with inspiring gospel music that will move your heart and encourage your spirit. The gospel choir will get you up off your feet in whole-hearted praise to God. Worship is followed by the video cast message.
Terrace Cafe Times: Grab a cup of coffee and relax in this outdoor worship environment. Located on the top of the Plaza Building, the Terrace Cafe is a perfect place to bring your friends for fellowship and a casual worship experience.
Traditions Times: Enjoy a warm, small church community and a traditional approach to worship through hymns and choruses.
Now, each of these forms of worship can be perfectly fine. The problem arises with the gross misconception that such worship is in any significant way comparable to the Catholic Mass. The truth is there really is no comparison at all.
The First Lord’s Supper
The evening before he was crucified, Jesus and the apostles shared a meal. At the Last Supper Jesus very plainly explained to the apostles how he wanted them to worship: He took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying,
“This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Lk 22:19-20)
These words must have been quite enlightening to the apostles, as they finally understood what Jesus meant when he said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn 6:54).
The apostles also understood in Jesus’ words both the authority and the commandment to “do” perpetually in worship what Jesus had just instituted: the Eucharist.
The Day of Obligation
The apostles went on to teach others this sacred, God-instituted form of worship. This is evident is Paul’s words to the Church at Corinth:
“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 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.”” (1 Cor 11:23-26)
Paul was not at the Last Supper, so he undoubtedly received this from the Lord through the other apostles. And in this passage we read that he has already delivered it himself to the Church at Corinth.
Scripture reveals that the Eucharist was celebrated on Sundays: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread . . .” (Acts 20:7). That the celebration took place on Sunday makes sense because Jesus was resurrected on that day (Mk 16:9).
Down through history, the Church Fathers attest that the Eucharist has been the constant and most sacred form of authentic Christian worship. In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the Catholic Church continues this form of worship and obliges Catholics to participate.
The authority to oblige Catholics in such a way was endowed to the Church by Jesus Himself. He said first to Peter and later to all of the apostles, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19, 18:18).
The Church has always recognized in these words the authority to enact disciplinary laws which the faithful must follow. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
The power to “bind and loose” connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church. Jesus entrusted this authority to the Church through the ministry of the apostles and in particular through the ministry of Peter . . . (CCC 553)
Today the obligation to attend the Mass is found in the Code of Canon Law: “Sunday, on which by apostolic tradition the paschal mystery is celebrated, must be observed in the universal Church as the primordial holy day of obligation . . . On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass” (CIC 1246 §1–1247).
Symbol or Reality?
Not long ago, Rick Warren announced, “We’re adding the Lord’s Supper . . . to 4:30 pm and 6:30 pm Sunday evening services every week!”
Some people have wondered whether “the Lord’s Supper” at Saddleback Church is the authentic Eucharist. The answer is no. The power and authority to consecrate the Eucharist has never been available to just anyone; it has always been necessary to be appointed by one of the apostles or their successors. Luke provides evidence of this: “[T]hey [Paul and Barnabas, in this case] had appointed elders for them in every church . . .” (Acts 14:23). As does Paul: “This is why I left you [Titus] in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you . . .” (Ti 1:5).
The term “elders” in these passages is translated from the Greek word presbyterous, from which we derive the English word priest. It is clear in the passages just cited that priests were necessarily appointed in every Church. In part, this was for the valid consecration of the Eucharist.
Since megachurches like Saddleback Church do not have priests ordained by successors of the apostles (i.e., Catholic bishops), they do not have the power or the authority necessary to consecrate the Eucharist changing its substance into the body and blood of Jesus.
Also, I’m not aware of any megachurches that recognize the life-giving presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, for Catholics the “source and summit” of the faith. In describing its Lord’s Supper, Saddleback Church’s Web site states: “The elements of bread and wine or juice are symbols of Christ’s broken body and shed blood. Communion is not a means of salvation.”
Mass Is Not Optional
There is no comparison between a modern megachurch worship service— however entertaining it might be—and the Eucharist instituted by Jesus. A person should never mistake such megachurch worship as any sort of alternative to the Mass. And, if he’s a Catholic, he must never neglect his obligation to participate in the Mass.
If a Catholic wishes to indulge in megachurch worship, and he can do so without endangering his own faith or scandalizing others, he is not explicitly forbidden from doing so. Even so, he cannot licitly participate in a megachurch communion service. This is forbidden by the Code of Canon Law: “Catholic ministers administer the sacraments licitly to Catholic members of the Christian faithful alone, who likewise receive them licitly from Catholic ministers alone . . . ” (844 §1). (Aka, “inter-communion”.)
The bottom line is this: Jesus didn’t instruct the apostles to perpetuate megachurch-style worship services, nor did He indicate that such worship would be life-giving. But He did institute the Eucharist, commanded the apostles to perpetuate it, and promised life to those who participate in it. Don’t we owe it to Him to worship as He commanded?”
I love Mormons. I do. They are sincerely the nicest people I have ever met, consistently. I have been to the Temple in SLC. I have my copies of Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price. I worked for a lovely family of Mormons, the Humphries, in Stone Harbor, NJ, when I was in high school and college. They owned an ice cream parlor called Springer’s. They still do. It is the social heart for young adults in that beach resort town. They could not have been kinder to me. I went to their local stake with them.
I know it’s hard to believe that Matt would run up to people to talk about religion, shocking, I know, but whenever I see Mormons on mission, I do. I love them. They are the NICEST people in the world!!!
If you drive around the beltway in DC, you will have the pleasure, it is spectacular, of watching a golden statue rise from the leaf canopy in spectacular fashion. It is breathtaking, and obviously, dramatically, intentional. When I returned to the civil engineering firm in Cape May Court House where I was interning that Summer in college, I promptly told the secretary there, who is a Latter Day Saint, that I had seen the Angel Gabriel on top of the Temple in DC rise from the trees!!!!! She gently informed me it wasn’t Gabriel, it was Moroni. 🙂
“After my July 27th Catholic Answers Live appearance, I was directed to an open letter written to me by a Mormon English teacher. Most of his objections are addressed in my new booklet 20 Answers: Mormonism, but I felt it would be worthwhile to respond to this critic, Jamie Huston, on this blog.
What are your sources?
Huston begins by posing ten questions based on general observations of my responses given during the CA Live broadcast. His first five questions are basically variants of the same question, “Have you done your homework?” He asks:
Have you engaged many Latter-day Saints in conversation about your claims regarding us? What have been the primary sources of your education about Latter-day Saints? How many sources have you studied and are they published by the LDS church?
To answer Mr. Huston: yes, I have done my homework. In my booklet on Mormonism, I cite primarily from the Mormon “standard works” (e.g. the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price) as well as official announcements from the First Presidency, which is the highest governing body in the LDS Church. I’ve also read extensively the work of contemporary Mormon apologists and have visited the website of FAIR Mormon, an online LDS apologetics website.
So, yes, I am well aware of the arguments made for Mormonism, as well as Mormon rebuttals to arguments made against the faith, all of which I have found unconvincing. That is not to say that I find them to be irrational or easy to refute (an attitude Huston accuses me of having in questions 7 and 10 of his post).
It means only that, after weighing the evidence, I have found the Mormon position unable to account for what we know from the Bible, from history, and from natural theology. I’m sure Mr. Huston feels that Catholicism and all other non-Mormon faiths also do not account for the available evidence, so he can’t fault me for having a similar attitude toward his faith.
Question 6 asks, “Are you aware of any accusations that have ever been made about LDS belief or practice that were distorted or inaccurate?” Yes; in fact, question 2 of my booklet corrects mistaken views people have about Mormon polygamy, temple garments, and endowment ceremonies (while respecting the confidentiality of these ceremonies).
Concerning the Strange and the Speculative
Question 8 says that some of my arguments against Mormonism rely on “strange or unappealing [details],” such as my comments about the phrase “and it came to pass” in the Book of Mormon. Huston asks if this is a good standard for judging if the Book of Mormon is true.
My comment about the phrase “it came to pass” was a passing one about the Book of Mormon. The fact that this phrase occurs almost twenty times more often in the Book of Mormon than it does in the Bible should be expected if the former were just an improvised dictation and not divinely inspired writing. (See Thomas Finley’s critique in the anthology The New Mormon Challenge of how the Book of Mormon uses this phrase.) But this wasn’t my main argument against the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
In my booklet, I showed that there are other, more serious reasons to question the Book of Mormon, including passages that are plagiarized from the New Testament (which was supposedly not available to the ancient authors of the book of Mormon) and anachronistic details about ancient America. And, yes, I have read Mormon defenses against these charges but have found them unconvincing.
For example, some Mormon apologists say that the descriptions of swords in the New World are not anachronistic, even though steel did not exist in the New World prior to Spanish colonization. That’s because some New World tribes made swords out of clubs laced with volcanic glass called obsidian. But this doesn’t explain the Book of Mormon’s description of these swords rusting (Mosiah 8:11), which glass cannot do.
Question 9 says that my analysis of the Mormon concept of God represents “digging” into “obscure and trivial parts of [the Mormon] religion.” Huston asks if this is “a tacit admission that the vast majority of Mormonism is innocuous if not actually positive?”
This raises the question as to what the “main parts” of the Mormon faith are. I would argue that God is a central part of not just the Mormon faith but of any faith. So the fact that Mormons believe that they will become gods (Doctrine and Covenants 132:20) and that God the Father has a physical body (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22), lives near a celestial object called Kolob (Book of Abraham 3:3-4), and created us with the assistance of a Heavenly Mother (Origin of Man, 1909) are not obscurities but crucial doctrines that must be evaluated.
And, no, I haven’t had to dig into some obscure archive in order to find these details. They are readily available in the standard works of the Mormon faith, particularly Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. The First Presidency taught in 1909 that alongside heavenly Father there is another divine figure called “Heavenly Mother” who was involved in creating human beings. Past LDS President Gordon Hinkley even said, “Logic and reason would certainly suggest that if we have a Father in Heaven, we have a Mother in Heaven. That doctrine rests well with me.”
Finally, the absence of compelling historical evidence for the events described in the Book of Mormon is troubling, and certainly Mr. Huston would agree that what is recorded in the Book of Mormon is not an “obscure” or “trivial” part of his faith!
The Witness of the Spirit
After his general observations, Huston addresses three specific issues I brought up in my CA Live appearance. The first is the Mormon practice of asking people to pray in order to discern if the Book of Mormon is true. I said this is a subjective and therefore poor way to discover if a religion is true, which Huston countered by citing Luke 24:32, James 1:5, and Matthew 7:7-8.
But in Luke 24, Jesus actually appeared and disappeared in front of the disciples on the Emmaus road, thus confirming his message and identity beyond what those two men felt. Matthew 7 deals only with asking for spiritual gifts, not knowledge about religious truth, and James 1:5 promises only that God will help us be wise, or apply our knowledge in prudent ways.
James does not teach us that God will give us knowledge about other religions or confirm if they are true or false simply through prayer and personal feelings. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” Instead, as 1 Timothy 3:15 says, the “the pillar and foundation of truth” is not a personal testimony but “the Church of the living God.”
Huston also says:
How do you account for the millions of people who have felt the power of the Holy Ghost testifying to them the truth of the Book of Mormon and the restored gospel? Can such a wide variety of people, over centuries and around the world, be deceiving themselves in such a consistent way? If it’s wishful thinking, when else has wishful thinking led to lives of compassionate charity and devotion fueled by sacrifice and self-denial?
But this argument could justify any religion. How does Huston account for the millions of people across the centuries who felt the spirit of God move them to embrace Catholicism, or Protestantism, or Islam, or Hinduism, or Buddhism? Don’t these faiths also possess people with lives of “compassionate charity and devotion fueled by sacrifice and self-denial”?
If this argument proves Mormonism is true, then it also proves every other major religion is true, and therefore it becomes useless as a defense of Mormonism. This also applies to Huston’s other argument: “If the Book of Mormon isn’t true, and someone prays about it, wouldn’t God clearly answer, ‘No! Get away from those lies and back to the Bible alone!’ Why wouldn’t God answer a prayer like that?”
So, according to Huston, since God doesn’t often correct people who accept the Book of Mormon, that means the book of Mormon is true. Okay, but God doesn’t routinely correct people who dismiss the book of Mormon, nor does he usually tell people who read the Qu’ran or the Catechism of the Catholic Church “get away from those lies!” Does that mean that Islam and Catholicism are true? Once again, Huston’s argument proves too much.
I agree with Huston that God can speak to someone’s heart to help him see the truth of the gospel message, but God also left us with evidence to help us determine when he actually has revealed himself. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 says we should test everything and retain what is good, not that we should pray only about important matters of faith. When Mormonism is tested for historical accuracy and sound theology, it falls short in both areas.
Becoming “Like” God, or Becoming Gods?
Huston says that the doctrine of “becoming like God” supposedly “got on my nerves,” but it’s not the doctrine of becoming like God that I found to be absurd (this is called theosis and is referenced in paragraph 460 of the Catechism). It’s the Mormon doctrine that those who follow all their ordinances will actually become gods—and, yes, we should be alarmed at a doctrine like that. Huston asks, “Which official LDS sources do you base the many extensions of this teaching that you cited?”
I’m glad he asked.
Along with the famous couplet from the fifth Mormon president, Lorenzo Snow (“As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be”), we have the words of Mormonism’s greatest prophet: Joseph Smith. Huston says I don’t have sources to back up the first half of Snow’s couplet; but in his King Follett sermon, Joseph Smith said, “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!”
Mr. Huston, is Joseph Smith wrong or right about God? If he’s right, then why not just accept Snow’s couplet? If Smith is wrong, then why should we trust the other things this so-called prophet said?
Huston explains the second part of Snow’s couplet by saying that we are “literal spirit children of God” and that “throughout the eternities of the next life, we can continue growing until we grow up to become like our Father and we will enjoy the same great blessings that make Heavenly Father God.” This includes the ability to “someday create spirit children of our own.”
But the Bible never says we are God’s literal children, only that we are his children through adoption (Romans 8:15). Jesus is the “only begotten” Son of God or the “one of a kind” Son of God (Greek, monogenous [John 3:18]). It’s true that in heaven we will share in many of God’s communicable attributes, like his holiness, but we can never become God, since God is the uncreated and infinite act of being.
We are and always will be creatures who, if we die in a state of grace, will adore the infinite God for all eternity. The Bible and Sacred Tradition never speak of us having “spirit children” in the next life, and they affirm that there is only one God, which means we cannot become “gods” (see Isaiah 43:10, Isaiah 44:8, John 5:44, John 17:3, 1 Timothy 6:16).
Joseph Smith and other early Mormon leaders were more explicit about the Mormon doctrine that believers will “become gods.” Smith said in the King Follett sermon:
[Y]ou have got to learn how to be gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation.
Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, said, “The Lord created you and me for the purpose of becoming Gods like Himself” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 3, 93.) In the twentieth century, the Mormon apostle Bruce McConkie said, “This full salvation is obtained in and through the continuation of the family unit in eternity, and those who obtain it are gods” (Mormon Doctrine, 472). The current Encyclopedia of Mormonism says, “This process known as eternal progression is succinctly expressed in the LDS aphorism, ‘As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.”
It’s true this teaching is not explicitly found in Mormonism’s standard works, but consider the words of prominent Mormon theologian Stephen E. Robinson:
It is the official teaching of the LDS Church that God the Father has a physical body (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22). The belief that God the Father was once a human being rests mainly on two technically uncanonized sources (sermons of Joseph Smith and Lorenzo Snow) which have, however, in effect become normative” [emphasis added] (How Wide the Divide?, p. 79).
Finally, I agree with Huston that the LDS Church has not defined how “spirit children” are made or who will be exalted, but what it has defined is heretical and must be rejected by orthodox Christians.
Is Jesus God or god?
Huston next says I was “flat-out” wrong in saying that Mormons don’t believe Jesus is God and demands sources for this allegation. Of course, that depends on how you define the word God. Mormons believe Jesus is “God” in the sense that we are all “gods.” According to their theology, we are all God’s literal spirit children (including Jesus) and were fashioned from eternally preexisting “intelligences” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:29).
Jesus allegedly told Joseph Smith, “I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the First-born; And all those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same, and are the church of the First-born. Ye were also in the beginning with the Father” (Doctrine and Covenants, 93:31-33).
The First Presidency taught in 1909,“The Father of Jesus is our Father also. . . . Jesus, however, is the first-born among all the sons of God—the first begotten in the spirit, and the only begotten in the flesh. He is our elder brother, and we, like Him, are in the image of God.” Jesus is our sibling because he was created like we were (which means he can’t be God, since God is uncreated).
Jesus is even the Devil’s brother, since God created both of them. The Mormon apologetics website FAIR Mormon admits, “[I]t is technically true to say that Jesus and Satan are ‘brothers,’ in the sense that both have the same spiritual parent, God the Father.”
However, to distinguish our faith from this heretical belief, Christians say in the Creed that the Son was “begotten, not made” (the term made applies to creatures like us or the angels), “one in being with the Father” and not a distinct being he created.
Huston says, “Mormons believe that Jesus Christ is Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament. (Did you know that?).” I did, but Mormons erroneously believe that the Bible teaches the existence of two Gods, Elohim and Jehovah. Elohim is supposed to be God the Father, while Jehovah is God the Son; but this doesn’t explain passages that identify one God by both these designations. One example of this would be Deuteronomy 6:4, which says, “Hear O Israel, Yahweh [Jehovah] our Elohim is one.” Notice also that Huston restricts Jesus to being “the God of the Old Testament” as if there is a different God of the New Testament. But isn’t Jesus the God of the whole Bible?
Huston also says, even though they each have their own glorified but physical body, Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ are absolutely united in all things, as both the Bible and Book of Mormon teach. Therefore, they are both God.
But if we are talking about two embodied beings, then we are talking about two gods, not one. Saying they are one being because they cooperate perfectly is like saying a miraculously cooperating Penn and Teller are one magician! Huston’s language is reminiscent of the previous LDS president Gordon Hinkley, who said of the Father and the Son, “They are distinct beings, but they are one in purpose and effort” (Gospel Principles, 37) and the LDS official website, which says, “each member of the Godhead is a separate being.”
So, if the Father and Son are separate beings (plural), and God just is being itself (singular, infinite, and undivided) then the Father and Son can’t be God. They would instead be gods, with the Father having a higher ontological status than the Son. But this contradicts Christian theology, which teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons who exist as the one being of God. The Catechism says:
We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the “consubstantial Trinity” . . . the real distinction of the persons from one another resides solely in the relationships which relate them to one another (CCC 253, 255).
Finally, I’ll close with some questions of my own for Mr. Huston:
When Jesus said the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church (Matt. 16:18) and instructed believers to bring sinners to “the Church” (Matt. 18:17), did he mean it? If Jesus is God, then wouldn’t he have known about the so-called “great apostasy” involving the Church “falling away” from the gospel (until it was restored by Joseph Smith?). If Jesus knew that would happen, why did he speak and act as if it would not?
How many gods are there? If there is more than one god, then how do you explain Isaiah 44:8, where God says, “Is there a God besides me? I know not any”; or John 5:44, where Jesus speaks of the glory of “the only God”?
In Acts 7:59, Stephen prayed to Jesus before his martyrdom, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Would you be comfortable directly asking Jesus to receive your spirit before death like Stephen did? Would you say to Jesus, “You are my Lord and God” like Thomas did (John 20:28)? Now, it’s true Jesus taught us to pray to the Father, but where in Scripture did Jesus say we must pray only to the Father? Since Jesus taught his disciples to pray only the Our Father, do you say only that prayer, or are other kinds of prayers allowed?
Can you tell me with any certainty and specificity where the events in the Book of Mormon took place? Doesn’t it concern you that even atheistic archaeologists agree with Christians and Jews on where many major events in the Bible took place but no such agreement is found regarding the events described in the book of Mormon?
Is there anything that would convince you that Mormonism is false? If not, then why should you expect other people to leave their faiths and become Mormon when you aren’t prepared to do the same?
In closing, I thank Mr. Huston for his response and encourage him, and anyone else reading this, to evaluate the evidence and not rely on emotions, which can lead us into error.”
“#1 Gene Fadness – Boise, Idaho
Your response, Trent, is thorough, correct and well-documented. As a former temple Mormon and missionary, I can tell you that the struggle we face is getting our LDS friends to acknowledge their entire faith history and theology. It’s a young faith, but there are already clear demarcations made between “old” Mormonism and “new” Mormonism. In the last 30 years, there is great reluctance to talk about eternal progression and men becoming gods. Google the Gordon Hinckley interview with Larry King where he does all he can to gloss over it. Some LDS who truly understand their faith and history even accused Hinckley of denying an essential doctrine. The modern church “glosses” over all those unpleasant topics such as men becoming gods, how Jesus was conceived, the existence of Kolob, the reasons for polygamy or a priesthood that once excluded people of African descent. Because they believe in modern revelation they have a convenient way to deny what past “prophets” and “apostles” have written.
August 11, 2015 at 11:56 am PST”
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, “You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP. "Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading." –St. Isidore of Seville “The aid of spiritual books is for you a necessity.… You, who are in the midst of battle, must protect yourself with the buckler of holy thoughts drawn from good books.” -St. John Chrysostom