-by Pat Flynn
“The other day, I tweeted something important: don’t forget to pray to your guardian angel. This received criticism from Protestants—for example, “Preferring to pray to an angel instead of to the one who commands them and is your Lord and Savior is cringeworthy.”Catholic users came in to clarify—Matthew 18:10, you know the drill. But here I want to say something different.
First, no Catholic thinks Scripture is the sole authoritative source to begin with, even if it is the highest authoritative source. Catholics also have Tradition and the Magisterium, and there we find the support we need for prayer to (that is, speaking to or asking for the intercession of) the angels. Catholics believe in a living, institutional, and hierarchical epistemic authority, which, according to the Faith, comes down to us by what is said: first, what is said by God eternally in His Son, the Logos, and from there what the Logos says to the apostles and then to the bishops, and right on down the line. This is the same authority that has given us the canon of Scripture, and having it is how we (as Catholics) can say, in a non-circular way, that this canon is the canon.
The Protestant position struggles seriously in this respect. After all, it seems as though sola scriptura—which is the operative rule for many Protestants—tells us we should not take as or make into doctrine anything that is not either explicitly taught in Scripture or clearly deducible from what is. The canon of Scripture itself must be a matter of doctrine for the Protestant, yet it is not something explicitly taught in Scripture or clearly deducible from what it is. It seems that the Protestant is committed to a contradiction in this matter. Nor does saying that sola scriptura is operative simply after the closing of the canon itself answer the pressing issue of how we reliably determine what the canon is or when it was closed, nor does Scripture indicate that such a paradigm shift is supposed to take place. Moreover, if the Church was able to reliably (that is, infallibly) guide us to the formation of the canon, it is contrived to then chop off that authoritative arm after the closing of the canon, especially since what counts as Scripture is only one of the epistemological issues facing sola scriptura—how to interpret Scripture and how to apply the lessons and consequences of Scripture in changing cultural contexts. Catholicism solves these issues with its expanded and more holistic notion of authority; Protestantism is refuted by them.
The other major point is this: the Protestant is frequently performing an illegitimate operation (i.e., often begging the question) by pushing the game onto his own turf when asking Catholics for this or that biblical proof text of his beliefs or practices—that is, by demanding that the Catholic play according to the rules of Protestantism. This is something Catholic convert Bryan Cross has pointed out various times: the question-begging assumption from Protestants that the Catholic magisterium’s understanding of faith and morals is no more authoritative than the understanding of any other Christian.
But the Catholic has every right to reject those “rules of engagement.” Why? Because the question is ultimately one of authority, not personal interpretation of biblical passages—which, we know, are often all over the place, not just between Catholics and Protestants, but among Protestants. If the Catholic view of authority is correct, and that authority substantiates prayer to the angels, then Catholics shouldn’t worry about proof-texting everything simply to cause the Protestant to think his beliefs and practices are less, as it were, cringeworthy. Whenever objections like these come up, the Catholic should highlight what the larger issue is; otherwise, the conversation runs the risk of being fruitless, since debates concerning biblical interpretation tend to go on endlessly with little to no productive resolution.
But maybe not entirely fruitless . . . as one can expose in such conversations many of the deeper issues inherent to the Protestant paradigm and sola scriptura in particular.
Apart from what has already been said, the Protestant position is frequently inconsistent, or at least conveniently lax in demanding the same standards of itself as it does Catholics. Returning to our example of prayer to angels, notice that the Protestant critic first demands biblical support for a position (asking angels for intercession), but then he gives a position that itself has no biblical support.
For example, our Protestant friend above tells us, “If Jesus’ instruction was a specific prayer and a model, then we would have ample reason to not veer off of that model unless we have equally comparable reason & authority to do so.” He continues, “The disagreement is that I’m stating that Jesus’ model does not allow for prayers to go to angelic beings, but rather should be directed to the Lord alone.”
But what is the biblical support for that? Specifically, what can we find in the Bible that tells us, either explicitly or through clear deduction, that if Jesus gives one model for prayer, then it is illegitimate to employ some other model unless we have equally comparable reason and authority to do so? (In asking what could constitute such an authority, this immediately puts the Catholic and Protestant right at the larger issue.) Or that Jesus’ model does not allow prayers to angelic beings just because it doesn’t include them? The answer is nothing—or at least nothing obvious.
Moreover, there is no teaching anywhere in Scripture that condemns speaking to angels. (Worshiping them is condemned, but that isn’t what Catholics are doing.) And just because Christ taught us to pray one way, there is no good biblical reason to say it is illegitimate to pray some other way. After all, Christ never prayed directly to the Holy Spirit. Ironically enough, I’ve heard Protestants claim that the apostles didn’t, either, and so (by extension) neither should we. But I know many Protestants who definitely do pray directly to the Holy Spirit. Either way, there is a claim being made that is not explicitly taught nor clearly deduced from Scripture, by somebody who demands that claims be substantiated by what is explicitly taught or clearly deduced from Scripture. What the Protestant is doing—if I dare say it—is putting out a tradition of man to reject what is the tradition of Christ’s Church.
And so the purpose of this article is not to defend, from a purely biblical perspective, prayers to angels. Various Catholics have already issued such defenses. (Joe Heschmeyer has a helpful article, and here’s Karlo Broussard on the intercession of saints in general.) Rather, the goal here is to point out the larger issues in these debates—issues that, I believe, expose several of the more fundamental incoherencies within the Protestant paradigm, while alerting Catholics to the fact they need not, and in fact should not, be pushed into debating according to the question-begging assumptions of the Protestant critic.”
-by Fr. Samuel Keyes, raised Baptist in Mississippi, Fr. Samuel Keyes became an Anglican/Episcopalian after college. He served parishes in Massachusetts and Alabama, and then Saint James School in Maryland, before being received into the Catholic Church in 2019 and ordained in 2020–21.
Fr. Keyes is currently a professor of theology at JPCatholic and parochial administrator of St. Augustine of Canterbury, an ordinariate community in San Diego County. He is married to Gretchen with five kids.
“Whether or not you noticed the collect for today’s Mass, let me point it out:
May your grace, O Lord, we pray, at all times go before us and follow after and make us always determined to carry out good works.
It’s a clear, pithy prayer that in a single sentence summarizes God’s saving economy: grace goes before our actions, assists our actions, and follows our actions. One wonders if a serious meditation on this collect—which has been part of the Roman Rite for very many centuries—would have prevented some conflict in the Reformation era among those fretting over the supposed opposition of “grace” and “works.” Those of us raised in certain quarters perk up our ears at any mention of “works” as being good. Yet the collect places all such works well within the sphere of God’s gracious providence. In the Divine Worship missal for the Anglican Ordinariate, we pray at every Mass that we should do “in all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.”
I point all this out, in part, because when I first glanced at the propers and readings for this Sunday, I was struck right away by the “good works” of the collect and the stories of grace and gratitude we hear in 2 Kings and Luke: the stories of Naaman (2 Kgs 5:14-17) and the ten lepers (Lk 17:11-19). It seemed interesting that the Church would simultaneously propose to us an implicit exhortation to good works and a reminder that in holy baptism—which is of course prefigured by Naaman’s ritual washing in the Jordan—we are washed clean and elevated to the life of grace by no merit of our own. But in the end, there is no real conflict between grace and good works, mainly because all good works are fundamentally graced: before, during, after. Part of God’s gift to us is the gift to do something with what we have been given and for this work to matter.
There are, at the same time, good and bad ways to respond to the gifts of grace. In both 2 Kings and Luke, the narrative gives special attention to the gratitude of the former lepers. The Samaritan leper in Luke, the one grateful man out of the ten, is a foreigner like Naaman the Syrian. So, a foreigner shows more gratitude than the people who claim this power as their birthright. Why is that?
There’s a very immediate connection we should make with the expansion of the covenant to the Gentiles through Christ. Naaman and the Samaritan are also both figures of Cornelius the centurion, who in Acts 10 receives—with awe and gratitude—the gifts of the Spirit in a way that is at first shocking and even confusing to the Jewish disciples. But we can also wonder if Jesus means to suggest here something of the default Jewish attitude towards divine grace. However final and permanent God’s promises were to the people of Israel, none of those promises translate grace into something owed. It seems almost as if the nine men in Luke think of their healing much in the way that so many modern Catholics think of the sacraments: obviously I deserve this; of course God is providing this for me; no need to make a big deal out of it.
Of course there is a real element of truth in that attitude: the sacraments are a given, in a certain sense. God has given them to us and he is not going to take them back. He is not going to send an angel from heaven and declare to the pope, “No more baptisms, we’re full up!” But their givenness, their enduring reality, does not mean that we should take them for granted any more than the people of Israel should have taken their ethnic heritage as a guarantee that they were full participants in God’s saving covenant.
That kind of entitlement really can become a “works righteousness,” wherein life becomes an accounting game I play with God. Let’s see: did first Friday devotions (check), said the rosary every day this week (check), asked for a number of Masses to be said (check) . . . so why hasn’t God given me what I want? Or, as someone asked me not that long ago, “Where did all those graces go?” And my response (internal, at least, because I’m not quite that mean) is: are we aiming for the beatific vision, or are we aiming to win some kind of cosmic video game?
There is the opposite approach, (maybe) less common among Catholics, but still a real danger, where we take for granted not the system of grace but the whole generic enterprise. This is antinomianism, the idea that what I do doesn’t matter in the least because God loves me, and He understands, and my heart is in the right place, etc.
I wonder if the principal remedy against these two opposing vices is the gratitude and thanksgiving that we see in the Samaritan and in Naaman. Because here’s the thing: on one level we might say that this healing is nothing extraordinary. It’s just what the Lord does; it’s in his nature, so to speak. But that is not the same thing as saying that I deserve it, or that I should act like it’s somehow par for the course.
It’s no coincidence that the central act of the Church for the last two millennia has been an act of thanksgiving, of Eucharist. We talk about this as the source and the summit, as the sacrament of sacraments, because it is the place where Christ Himself is present in His Church. But it is also where the Church does the thing that most characteristically makes her the Church: she gives thanks. She says, “Lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.”
Our calling as Christians, however else we might imagine it, is first to be grateful, to give thanks. The Lord has put away our sins, he has called us to his service, he has given us the power to follow him in this world. Thanks be to God. Everything else follows that.”
Love & truth,
“Let’s take a look at Scripture.
Galatians 5:4 is a go-to text for Catholics when it comes to defending the belief that Christians can lose their salvation:
“You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.”
Notice that St. Paul says the Galatians were “severed from Christ” and that they have “fallen away from grace.” Both statements imply that the Galatians had been saved, since to be in Christ and in grace is to be free from condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Yet, these Galatians, who were looking to be justified by the Old Law, are no longer in Christ and in grace. As such, they are currently subject to condemnation, which means they lost that initial saving relationship they had with Christ.
For some Protestants, the Catholic take on Paul in Galatians 5:4 is based on a fundamentally flawed assumption. Basically, Catholics don’t understand what Paul is talking about here! They will say “Paul is not talking about a loss of salvation. He’s talking about a loss of sanctification.”
Protestant apologist Norman Geisler, in his book Four Views on Eternal Security, wrote, “they have not lost their true salvation but only their sanctification . . . they have fallen from grace as a means of living a sanctified (holy) life.”
Geisler gives two reasons for this claim. First, “they are already saved,” since they are called “brothers” (6:1) and have placed their “faith” in Christ (3:2). Second, Paul mentions only the threat of the “yoke of slavery” (5:1) and not eternal torment in hell.
How should a Catholic respond?
Our first response is directed toward the overall interpretation here. An immediate glaring problem is that it clashes with the plain sense of the text. Paul doesn’t say, “You who would seek to be sanctified by the law.” Rather, he says, “You who would seek to be justified by the law.” The Greek word for “justified” is dikaioō, the same word that Paul uses when he speaks of justification by faith in Romans 3:28, a text that all Protestants acknowledge refers to justification in the sight of the God.
Now we can turn our attention to the two points in support of Paul talking about sanctification. Galatians 5:4, the argument goes, can’t refer to salvation because “they are already saved,” since they are called “brothers” and have “faith” in Christ. The problem here is the assumption that “already being saved” (being a Christian) necessarily entails being eternally secure in that salvation.
The status of “already being saved” can just as easily be read within the Catholic framework of salvation. On the Catholic view, a believer is truly saved when he initially comes to faith in Christ and enters the body of Christ via baptism. Being a member of Christ’s mystical body constitutes all Christians as spiritual brothers and sisters. It’s just that on the Catholic view, the saving relationship with Christ that we initially enter through baptism can be lost by mortal sin.
Since the “already saved” status of the Galatians can fit within the Catholic framework, just as it can within an “eternally secure doctrine” framework, a Protestant can’t appeal to the Galatians’ “saved” status to counter the Catholic interpretation of Galatians 5:4.
What about the “yoke of slavery”? Why not hell? Well, Paul mentions the yoke (i.e., the Old Testament Law) several verses earlier, and after doing so, he says, “If you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you” (5:2). What advantage does Christ give us? Salvation! Therefore, Paul is saying that to go back to the Old Covenant—i.e., circumcision—is to cut oneself off from salvation. The reason is because Christ alone is our source of salvation (Acts 4:12). It is in this light that we must understand Paul when he says, “You have been severed from Christ” and “you have fallen away from grace.”
So, in fact, Paul does threaten the Galatians with damnation. As such, Paul teaches it’s possible for a Christian to lose salvation.”
Love & truth,
“I have found that the canon of Scripture is the single most fruitful topic to discuss with Protestant friends. The canon is the set of books that make up the Bible—Scripture’s “table of contents”—and it is one of the most important issues between Catholics and Protestants for two reasons: first, because the Catholic and Protestant canons differ (Catholics have seventy-three books in their canon and Protestants have sixty-six); second, because Protestants believe in a doctrine called sola scriptura or “the Bible alone.”
Sola scriptura means that only the Bible is the sole, infallible rule of faith and the sole source of public revelation given by God to man. Under this doctrine, Scripture is the first, best, and ultimate depository for divine truth, as well as the only one that is without error, having been inspired by God himself, who cannot lie.
But for sola scriptura to be true, we must first be able to know which books, exactly, make up Scripture (i.e., the biblical canon). We must also know this biblical canon with a certainty strong enough to bind our consciences. After all, if we believe that God inspired books to be written such that they are without error but we don’t know which books those are, we are left in the unacceptable position of not knowing whether a given book is inspired (and therefore inerrant) or whether it is just another book written from the mind of a human being.
Martin Luther was not afraid to challenge the canon of Scripture. He relegated four New Testament books to an appendix, denying that they were divinely inspired. Though this alteration of the New Testament wasn’t adopted by the Protestant movements, his alteration of the Old Testament was, and by the end of the Reformation Protestantism had removed seven books (the deuterocanonicals) from the Old Testament canon.
This means if Protestantism is true, God allowed the early Church to put seven books in the Bible that didn’t belong there.
Why Protestants changed their canon
The Protestants rejected the books for several reasons, two of which we will focus on here. The first was a “problematic” passage in 2 Maccabees, and the second was their desire to go “back to the sources”—ad fontes—which to them meant using the same books that the Jews had decided upon.
2 Maccabees included a laudatory reference to prayers for the dead, a practice that the Catholic Church had encouraged for assisting the souls in purgatory. Recall Luther’s protest of the sale of indulgences to remove the temporal punishment due for already forgiven sins—punishment that must be paid before a soul would be fit to enter heaven. Luther and the Reformers rejected purgatory, so all that was connected with it also had to go: indulgences, prayers for the dead, and the communion of saints (which includes those both living and asleep in Christ).
The Reformers pointed out that these seven books were not included in the Jewish Hebrew Bible. For that reason, they argued, the books should not be accepted by Christians. Some Protestant apologists seek to bolster this claim by mentioning the theory that, around A.D. 90, a council of Jews at Jamnia explicitly rejected these books. (The consensus among modern scholars is that the Jews closed their canon closer to the end of the second century A.D.)
Others like to point out that some Church Fathers rejected one or more of these books. They strengthen this argument with the testimony of Josephus and Philo—two Jews from the first century—who also did not accept them.
Why the deuterocanonicals are inspired
Because Catholicism is true, the church Christ founded, and not the Jews, possessed the authority and divine guidance to discern the Old Testament canon.
A little historical background is needed here. The first Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, used during Jesus’ time, was called the Septuagint. It was an evolving set of books that was added to from the third century B.C. until the time of Christ. It remains the most ancient translation of the Old Testament that we have today and so is used to correct the errors that crept into the Hebrew (Masoretic) text, the oldest extant manuscripts of which date only from the ninth century.
The Septuagint was used extensively in the Near East by rabbis, and in the first century the apostles quoted prophecies from it in the books that became the New Testament. It was accepted as authoritative by the Jews of Alexandria and then by all Jews in Greek-speaking countries.
By the time of Christ, the Septuagint contained the deuterocanonical books. The majority of Old Testament quotes made by the New Testament authors come from the Septuagint. In fact, the early Church used the Septuagint as its primary Old Testament source until the fifth century. Its importance cannot be overstated.
Historical evidence also shows that there were multiple, conflicting Jewish canons at the time of Christ. Protestants claim that the Hebrew canon was closed at the time of Christ. But let’s stop and think about that: How could the Jews close their canon when they were still awaiting the advent of the new Elijah (John the Baptist) and the new Moses (Jesus)?
Recall that Malachi 4:5 tells us that God would send a new Elijah the prophet: “Behold I will send you Elias the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” We know from John 1:19-25 that the Jews were eagerly awaiting this new Elijah, as well as the new Moses.
Since many prophets in the Old Covenant had been inspired by God to write books, it only makes sense that the Jews would expect these two great prophets to write books as well. Closing the Hebrew canon before the prophets’ advent, then, would have been unthinkable.
Timothy Michael Law, in his new book When God Spoke Greek, has demonstrated that the Jews did not close their canon until the second century A.D. This fact renders the (alleged) Jewish council’s decision at Jamnia moot. It should be noted that most scholars today doubt that any such council ever took place.
But even if it did, would Jewish leaders possess the authority to make a decision binding upon the Christian Church? Those Jews who had accepted Christ had already become Christians. The remainder had no authority to decide anything about divine truth, as that authority had passed to those filled with the Holy Spirit (i.e., the apostles). The same goes for the opinions of Josephus and Philo. The Jews did not have the authority to decide the canon. The Church did.
Law also shows that the Greek Septuagint is a witness to an, at times, even more ancient textual stream of the Hebrew scriptures when compared with the Masoretic text. Ironically, this meant that the Reformers goofed when they relied upon the Masoretic text and the (truncated) Hebrew canon in their attempt to go “back to the original sources.” They should have used the Septuagint translation and included the seven deuterocanonical books! Thus the argument that Christians should base their Old Testament off of the Hebrew Bible rather than the Greek Septuagint is dubious.
Regarding Church Fathers doubting the deuterocanonical books, it is true that several rejected one or more of them or put them on a level lower than the rest of Scripture. But many, including those with doubts, quoted them as Scripture with no distinction from the rest of the Bible.
The broader fact is that the testimony of the Fathers was not unanimous on the Old Testament canon. Even Jerome, the great biblical scholar, early in his career favored the Hebrew canon but then changed his mind and submitted his opinion to the wisdom of the Church, accepting the deuterocanonicals as Scripture (ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf203.vi.xii.ii.xxvii.html).
Finally, it should be pointed out that Protestants seeking to defend their canon based on historical evidence—even if they are convinced they have found sufficient proof—run into an insurmountable problem: Nowhere in Scripture does it say that this is the way to know which books belong in the canon. Such a criterion for choosing the canon in fact contradicts sola scriptura, because it is an extra-biblical principle.
A consistent Protestant argument for selecting the canon of Scripture, then, must itself come from Scripture, which would create a circular argument. Unfortunately—but providentially—no such instructions from God exist. No table of contents is found in any biblical book. No scroll with a table of contents is considered inspired by Protestants (or by Catholics).
The self-authenticating canon
Most Protestant apologists realize that all their stalwart arguments have iron-clad rebuttals. And so many have abandoned those arguments and cling to their last remaining bastion: They claim that the inspired books authenticate themselves. This idea is so widely used that it is worthy of a lengthy explanation.
The self-authenticating canon means that a true Christian can read a given book and easily tell whether it is inspired by God or not. The Holy Spirit dwelling within the Christian would witness to the book’s inspiration. This theory did away with the need for trusting the corrupted early Church or for tracing the messy history of the canon’s development. Instead, you as a faithful Christian simply picked up your Bible, read the books, and listened for the inner witness of the Spirit telling you that the books were inspired by God.
Similarly, you could theoretically pick up a non-canonical epistle or Gospel from the first or second century, read it, and note the absence of the Spirit’s confirmation of its inspiration. As Calvin described it:
It is utterly vain, then, to pretend that the power of judging Scripture so lies with the church and that its certainty depends upon churchly assent. Thus, while the church receives and gives its seal of approval to Scripture, it does not thereby render authentic what is otherwise doubtful or controversial. . . . As to their question—How can we be assured that this has sprung from God unless we have recourse to the decree of the church?—it is as if someone asked: Whence will we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Indeed, Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste. . . . those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and Scripture indeed is self-authenticated (Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, vii.1, 2, 5).
Calvin makes two claims here. First, that the Church does not give authority to Scripture but rather Scripture has authority by the fact that God inspired it; second, that a Christian can know the canon from the Holy Spirit’s testimony within him, not by trusting a decision of the Church.
Calvin’s first claim has never been contested by the Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches, or any Christian. It is a straw man: The Church teaches that it received inspired texts from God (through human authors) and that God guided it in discerning which among many texts were truly inspired. The Church is thus the servant of written revelation and not its master.
Calvin’s second claim has become the common answer from Protestants who can’t concede that a corrupt Church selected the canon. There’s an element of truth to it: Surely the Holy Spirit does witness to our souls when we read the Bible. But Calvin sets up a false dichotomy here: Either the Church, by discerning the canon, imagines itself in authority over Scripture, or the canon is self-evident to any Christian. Calvin replaces the belief that God guided the Church in selecting the canon with the belief that God guides me or you in selecting it. He forces his readers to choose between these options, but in fact they are both false.
History contradicts Calvin’s claim
There is no principled reason, in Scripture or elsewhere, to believe that God would guide me or you in this discernment but not the Church. Moreover, Calvin’s subjective criterion for discerning the canon is surely impractical and unrealistic. How would a person seeking truth but not yet indwelt by the Holy Spirit know which books to read to find truth? What about a new Christian who had not learned to distinguish the inner voice of the Spirit from his own? At what point after his conversion would a Christian be considered ready to help define the canon? If two Christians disagreed, whose inner judgment would be used to arbitrate their dispute and identify the real canon?
Another problem with Calvin’s claim is that the facts of history contradict it. As we have seen, the selection of the canon was not an easy, debate-free process that ended with the close of written revelation in the early second century. Rather, the canon emerged slowly through a laborious process, with differing canons being proposed by different Church Fathers during these centuries.
If the canon were obvious and self-evident, the Holy Spirit would have led each of them to the same canon. Yet even these faithful, Spirit-filled men, so close to the time of the apostles and Christ himself, proposed different canons. It was not until almost A.D. 400 that the canon was settled, and it contained the seventy-three books of the Catholic Bible. When, more than 1,100 years later, the Reformers changed the canon by rejecting the seven deuterocanonical books (and Luther unsuccessfully tried to discard others), it was another example of intelligent and well-meaning Christians disagreeing about the “self-authenticated” canon.
The books of the canon are not obvious merely from reading them. Martin Luther should prove that to Protestants, since he was the founder of the Protestant Reformation, and yet he tried to jettison four books from the New Testament.
The Church discerns the Old Testament
This means that neither the New Testament nor the Old Testament is self-authenticating. And so we come full circle back to the question of the deuterocanonicals. Weighing this evidence, any open Protestant should be able to admit that the only thing keeping him back from considering these books as inspired by God is the Protestant tradition that rejected them. Is that tradition from God or from men?
The Church’s careful discernment of the canon settled on including the deuterocanonical books. And, with some occasional doubts, the books were consistently included in the canon from the 300s through the 1400s. In fact, the ecumenical council of Florence in the mid-1400s reaffirmed their inclusion in the Old Testament canon. This was long before Martin Luther and the first Protestants and lends further evidence that the Church accepted these books as inspired and did not “add” them to the canon in response to the Reformation, as many Protestants claim.
If Protestantism is true, then for more than a thousand years all of Christianity used an Old Testament that contained seven fully disposable, possibly deceptive books that God did not inspire. He did, however, allow the early Church to designate these books as Sacred Scripture and derive false teachings such as purgatory from their contents. Eventually, God’s chosen Reformer, Martin Luther, was able to straighten out this tragic error, even though his similar abridgment of the New Testament was a mistake.”
Love & truth,
-by Jimmy Akin
“One of the stickiest points in Catholic-Protestant debates is what is meant by the Protestant term sola scriptura, or “Scripture alone.”
Protestant apologists assert the doctrine but are often reluctant to offer a precise definition of it. Most will say that it does not mean certain things and will make a general stab at saying what it does mean, but I do not know of a Protestant apologist who has offered a complete and precise definition.
Thus, Catholic apologists are left in the unenviable position of critiquing an imprecise assertion. They commonly critique what they perceive most Protestants to mean by sola scriptura, which brings on nigh-inevitable charges of misrepresenting “the Protestant position.”
The problem is that there is no single Protestant position on sola scriptura. The term is used different ways, the details of which vary. But there seem to be two major ways the idea is interpreted.
At times the phrase is taken to mean that we must be able to derive from Scripture alone all of the theological truths that God wished to reveal to mankind—and even all of the religious practices in which Christians should engage (i.e., that Scripture is “sufficient for faith and practice”).
Other times a more restricted claim is made: that we can derive from Scripture alone all of the truths that are needed for salvation.
When the doctrine of sola scriptura is not under cross-examination, though, a more robust understanding is employed, and Evangelical Christians are trained to ask reflexively for a biblical basis whenever any theological idea or religious practice is proposed. Thus when Evangelicals talk with Catholics, they identify a particular Catholic doctrine or practice they disapprove of and then ask, “Where’s that in the Bible?” For example, an Evangelical may select a topic such as purgatory (a theological belief) or praying to saints (a practice) and demand a biblical basis for it.
Necessary for Salvation
Note that, strictly speaking, neither of these appears to involve a truth that is necessary for salvation: God exists; God is a Trinity; Jesus is God the Son; Jesus died on a cross for our sins; and we need to repent, believe, and be baptized to be saved—in other words, truths connected directly with the gospel.
Purgatory is not connected with the gospel in that way. Neither is praying to saints. A Protestant asking for biblical bases for these would seem to be using a more expansive understanding of sola scriptura than just the idea that Scripture states or implies all truths necessary for salvation. He seems to be expecting Scripture to contain bases for all theological truths and religious practices.
If the same individual retreats, when sola scriptura is being questioned, to the more modest understanding of it, then it is fair for the Catholic to note the inconsistency and ask him to choose one understanding of the doctrine and stick with it.
If he chooses the more expansive understanding, then he endorses a position that is much more difficult to defend. As many works of Catholic apologetics have shown, nobody in the pages of Scripture itself operated on the principle that all belief and practice should be derivable from Scripture alone. It’s hard to find passages that could be construed as teaching this idea, and it is easy to find passages that indicate the contrary, such as Paul’s exhortation to his readers to heed all of the traditions they had received, whether they were written in his letters or conveyed orally (2 Thess. 2:15).
If, though, the Evangelical chooses the more modest interpretation of sola scriptura, then he will have to let go of many common Protestant objections to Catholicism. If only truths necessary for salvation have to be given a biblical basis, then he would not be able to object to purgatory or praying to saints or Marian doctrines or other Catholic beliefs and practices that have been criticized since the Reformation. He might still disagree with Catholics on these, but he would not be able to fault a Catholic for not providing a biblical basis for them.
An Evangelical might say, “Wait a minute: If a Catholic denies the existence of purgatory, which the Church has taught infallibly, that would be a grave sin. If he did it with adequate knowledge and consent, his grave sin would become mortal, and he would lose his salvation. Thus, for a Catholic, things such as purgatory are necessary for salvation.”
It’s true that a Catholic would commit a mortal sin under the circumstances just named, but that does not make purgatory a truth “needed” for salvation. If you have mere moments to evangelize a dying man, there are certain things that he needs to be told for the sake of his salvation: the truths mentioned above about God, Jesus, and how to respond to God’s offer of salvation.
Purgatory is not one of those. Purgatory may be an imminent reality for the dying man, but it is not necessary for him to know about it in order to accept God’s offer of salvation. If he has a while to live, he should be taught the fullness of the faith, including purgatory. But if he is in danger of death, he most needs the core facts of the gospel.
Ya Gotta Have Faith
Purgatory and similar beliefs are related to salvation in a different way: The reason it would be sinful to deny them is that it involves a rejection of the virtue of faith. God has taught them and empowered the Church to propose them infallibly to the faithful. Because that has happened, our faith in the working of God demands that we give assent to them. To refuse to do so, with adequate knowledge and consent, is to reject faith in God. One might still believe in the existence of God—and any number of other individual teachings of the faith—but the virtue of faith that unites us to God is extinguished if we reject his authority to teach us in the manner of his choosing.
A parallel can be proposed in an Evangelical context: The Bible clearly teaches many things that are not directly required for salvation. For example, it teaches the existence of angels. The reality of angels is not itself something that you need to know to get into heaven.
If you have a short time to evangelize a dying man who, by some fluke, has never heard of angels, you don’t have to take time away from telling him about God to make sure he knows about angels. Angels may be about to escort him to the pearly gates, but he doesn’t need to know about them in advance. The existence of angels is thus something that Scripture teaches, but it is not a truth necessary for salvation.
But suppose the dying man knows that the Bible teaches the existence of angels but refuses to believe it. Suppose he also knows that God is the author of the Bible and that God teaches the existence of angels, yet he still refuses to believe it. Does that man have faith in God? He may acknowledge God’s existence, he may want to be saved by God, but classical Protestant theologians would not say that a man who acknowledges God’s existence but refuses to accept what he knows to be God’s word has faith in God—certainly not saving faith.
The question for the Evangelical thus remains whether such beliefs require a biblical basis. If they do require one, then we arrive back at a hard-to-defend interpretation of sola scriptura whereby everything we are expected to believe must have a biblical basis.
But what if the Evangelical really were willing to stick with the more modest interpretation? Suppose he said, “Okay, I don’t agree with Catholics on teachings such as purgatory, but I recognize that they are not necessary for salvation, so I won’t demand that Catholics produce a biblical basis for them.”
He might also say, “In Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, Paul makes it clear that a person can sin by violating his conscience even when he mistakenly believes he is required by God to do or not do something. Paul even speaks as if such individuals may not be saved. So I can acknowledge that a person who believes the Catholic Church has been authorized to teach infallibly for God would sin and jeopardize his salvation if he rejected the ‘infallible’ teachings of the Church, even if they are not necessary in themselves for salvation.
“I just want to maintain,” he might conclude, “that there must be a biblical basis for every teaching that is in itself necessary for salvation. That’s all I mean when I talk about sola scriptura. What would a Catholic say about that?”
A Catholic Perspective
I don’t know any Evangelicals who are this startlingly consistent in advocating the modest interpretation of sola scriptura.
A Catholic would not use the term sola scriptura—which is historically contentious and highly prone to misunderstanding—but he certainly can agree that the basic facts of the gospel and how to respond to it can be derived from Scripture. A Catholic would add that these facts need to be understood in the light of Sacred Tradition and that the Church’s intervention may be necessary to make sure they are understood correctly.
Indeed, Peter warns that “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (2 Pet. 1:21) and says of Paul’s writings that “there are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (3:16). But despite these qualifications, the basic facts necessary for salvation can be given a biblical basis.
It would be interesting to know how far such an Evangelical would be willing to rethink matters: If he’s willing to confine sola scriptura to just the basic facts needed for salvation, then what principles are to be employed in determining the rest of his theology?
The Catholic Church has a few he might want to consider.”
Love & truth,
-by Baroque Painter Jacques Blanchard’s Saint Jerome was made in 1632 and the original painting is in Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. The original size of the work is 145,5 x 116 cm and is made of oil on canvas., please click on the image for greater detail
“…We know quite a bit about (Jerome’s) life because he couldn’t help discussing it at length, in letters, treatises, commentaries and even the introductions to his translations of the Bible. The Catholic Church not only recognised him as a saint: it declared him to be one of the four first Latin-language Doctors of the Church.
His learning and intelligence were quite literally legendary. In the Middle Ages Jerome was said to have once been lecturing to students in Bethlehem when a lion approached. His students fled in terror; he saw that it was limping and removed a thorn from its paw. Thereafter he was followed everywhere by a tame pet lion. The story has never really been believed, at least among the learned; but the lion has been associated with Jerome as a symbol ever since. Perhaps this reflects certain aspects of his personality: you read his writing and cannot help but think, A saint? Him?
Saint Jerome of Stridon
Saint Jerome (AD 331–420), the man who translated the Bible into Latin, was born at Stridon in Dalmatia during the reign of Constantine the Great (r. 306–37). His home, and at least some of the family estates, appear to have been destroyed by invading Goths in 379.
Jerome’s parents were Christian, but did not bother to have him baptised. They insisted on speaking Latin at home, although they lived in the provinces. Later in life Jerome would complain of continuing to remember stray vocabulary from his “barbarous native language”, including the name of the unappetising beer that was brewed both locally and in the neighbouring province of Pannonia. Jerome appears to have learnt enough of the local Illyrian dialect to shout at peasants and slaves.
In a letter (AD 382) he admits that during his childhood and early youth he had been a glutton for luxurious food; he considered this to be the most difficult vice to drop when he chose to adopt a more ascetic manner of living.
Jerome in Rome
Jerome’s parents sent him to Rome to be educated under the famous schoolmaster Aelius Donatus, who remains well-known as the author of grammatical textbooks, as well as literary commentaries on the works of Terence and Vergil that summarise a great deal of earlier scholarship.
Donatus trained his pupils thoroughly according to his own fastidious literary tastes. Although his own prose has been described as dry, bland and wholly colourless, he at least had strong opinions about what good writing should be. From Donatus, Jerome acquired a passionate devotion to strict grammatical correctness.
Having left the school of Donatus at around the age of sixteen, Jerome began his formal rhetorical training. He appears to have thrived, relishing every available opportunity to challenge his fellow students to debates, which he treated as verbal duels. Later in life he would remember with pleasure how carefully he groomed himself at this point in his life, particularly when preparing to deliver practice orations in front of his rhetoric master.
Jerome appears to have been destined early on for a career at the Bar. He frequented courts of law, and mastered all the legal materials and techniques of argument that were to feature so frequently in his many writings, particularly where he threatened to sue his opponents. He never formally studied philosophy, but memorised many philosophers’ names, often in the original Greek.
As a student in Rome, one of Jerome’s greatest pastimes involved copying library books, as a relatively inexpensive means of creating a library of his own. He also bought many books, but many hours were spent writing out copies of his own in this way. The library that he began to build would never leave his side, even when he later retired into a cave; this handwritten collection would develop into one of the most important private libraries of his day, when Roman literary culture was already beginning to shrivel and decay.
“Have mercy on me, a sinner”
Books were not his only pleasure. During this period Jerome appears to have indulged in a range of unspecified activities which later caused him to be disgusted with himself; these are not catalogued in any of his later writings in which he castigates himself for his corrupt adolescence and early manhood. His most specific autobiographical description of the period describes the young Jerome as “befouled with the squalor of every type of sin”.
Jerome’s occasional lapses of self-mastery affected much of the course of his life. During a period of enforced self-isolation he was afflicted by powerful visions of sins that he thought he had abandoned, many of which appear to have involved saltatrices (dancing girls). In a letter to his friend Pammachius (AD 393) he admitted that if he exalted virginity to the skies, it was in admiration of what he had lost. Self-recrimination features in much of his correspondence.
Jerome appears never to have endured a phase of petulant disbelief even as a teenager; he was not a baptized Christian, however, until his mid-twenties (or possibly even his early thirties). Yet he was evidently drawn to the religion of his parents. In his Commentary on Ezekiel he records his Sunday habit of visiting the tombs of all the Apostles and Martyrs in Rome with a small group of fellow students. The darkness in the crypts was total; the heat, humidity and terrifying blackness reminded them of the line from Psalm 55:
Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into Hell: for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them.
In Jerome’s own translation:
Veniat mors super illos, et descendant in infernum viventes: quoniam nequitiae in habitaculis eorum, in medio eorum.
The friends also remembered the latter part of the second book of Virgil’s Aeneid, and Aeneas’ frantic night-time stumbling through the burning ruins of Troy:
horror ubique animo simul ipsa silentia terrent.
(Aeneid 2.755: “Dread from every side fills my heart, whilst the very silence causes alarm.”)
Jerome leaves Rome
In 367 AD, Jerome and his childhood friend Bononus settled together by the “half-barbarian banks of the Rhine”, likely in the imperial city of Trier. During this period Jerome had much leisure to continue augmenting his library, although Trier does not appear to have been a centre of learning. He was already thirty-six years old.
In this “ghastly backwater” Jerome had leisure to observe what he considered the “primitive customs”, “clumsy language” and “unappetising food” of various Germanic tribes. He never forgot his first sight of the Attacotti, uncouth natives of Ireland, who sometimes ate human flesh, and had a taste for the buttock-meat of stolen livestock – they never seem to have acquired the skill of animal husbandry for themselves. The Irish “savages”, as he described them, were probably on display in captivity at the imperial residence.
According to Saint Augustine, Trier unexpectedly became an early centre of monasticism at around this time. The movement allegedly began when a pair of bored imperial courtiers stumbled (perhaps literally) over a copy of Saint Athanasius’ Life of Saint Antony of Egypt, a hagiographical account of how an illiterate holy man became the first Christian hermit. Athanasius’ work made the life of a monk appear highly attractive to the two courtiers. They settled in a hut outside the city walls of Trier and began to attract followers.
It is unknown whether the two courtiers mentioned by Augustine are Bononus and Jerome. If so, someone else must have taken over the monastery, because Jerome left Trier to visit his family in Stridon.
He had not been home in years. His younger sister, now in her early teens, was conducting herself in a manner which led him to describe her as “wounded by the devil” and “spiritually dead”; this led to a protracted quarrel with Jerome’s maternal aunt Castorina. St Jerome’s relationship with his parents cooled. He was also disenchanted with the Christian community at Stridon, describing it as boorish, rustic, greedy, materialistic and led by a bishop (Lupicinus) who was admirably suited to such a degraded people, whom he led in the manner of a blind man leading other blind men into a pit, as in the Biblical parable (Matthew 15:13-14).
Jerome pressured his sister to take religious vows, possibly at the convent in nearby Emona, and ended up breaking permanently with most of his extended family. Leaving home forever, he visited the city of Aquileia (near Venice). Bononus came with him; his old classmates Rufinus and Heliodorus were already there. The trio decided to settle together to form a sort of informal monastery (as it were).
The bishop of Aquileia appealed greatly to Jerome. There were many energetic Christian reformers in the city; they did not compromise on doctrine, dogma or the importance of orthodoxy. Jerome congratulated the bishop on cleansing the city of heresy. Pious ascetics were more than welcome in Aquileia. Among Jerome’s new friends was Paul, who was almost a hundred years old, and also had an extensive collection of books, many of which Jerome copied out himself.
In 373, a crisis erupted. In letters Jerome complained of being relentlessly hounded by an unnamed enemy. Doors slammed shut in his face. We do not know why his reputation was so suddenly blackened, though he appears to have done something shocking, offensive and completely unforgiveable in the eyes of the community of nuns at Emona. They never replied to his letters begging their forgiveness, and pleading that they not judge him too hastily or give ear to malicious gossip. In at least one letter he admitted that he had done wrong and had to ask for their pardon.
Jerome and his three friends were compelled to leave Aquileia and go their separate ways. Rufinus sailed away to Egypt; Bononus became a hermit on a rocky island in the Adriatic; Heliodorus went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Jerome decided to make his way to the Holy Land as well. They all appear to have had a distinctive motivation for leaving; the others’ reasons appear to have been unconnected to the scandal that drove St Jerome away from his new home.
Disillusioned and bitter, Jerome resolved to take his library with him into the wilderness. He would spend the rest of his life as a penitent ascetic near Jerusalem. But first he would make a tour of the East. He stopped in Antioch at the home of his friend Evagrius, a rich and influential priest, and ended up staying for over a year.
His health had suffered during his journey; he spent part of his convalescence studying Aristotle with a private tutor. But he fell into a state of mental and spiritual turmoil, torn by conflicting desires, and wracked by vacillation and remorse. He still enjoyed pagan literature, and knew he remained susceptible to pleasures of the flesh; he felt too unworthy and sinful to isolate himself as a hermit, or join a community of holy monks.
At Lent 374 AD, while bedridden with a wasting illness, he had a terrible nightmare, which he later recounted in a letter (Epistle 22, to Saint Eustochium, section 30). In the dream he was dragged before a tribunal. A bright light blinded him. The Judge asked him what he was. “A Christian,” he replied. “Liar!” the Judge retorted. “You follow Cicero, not Christ – your heart lies where your treasure is.” The judge ordered him to be flogged. St Jerome was tormented more by guilt than by the lashes of his torturer, and cried out for mercy. Bystanders interceded, pleading on his behalf for mercy, begging that he be allowed a chance to mend his ways. He swore an oath:
“Domine, si umquam habuero codices saeculares, si legero, te negavi.”
“Lord, if ever again I possess worldly books, or read them, I shall have denied Thee.”
He was released.
Jerome woke up. His back and shoulders were swollen, and covered with welts and bruises.
For at least a decade Jerome kept his promise and refused to read pagan literature. Of course he had already memorized his favorite Classics long since. Eventually he found means of modifying, then drastically reinterpreting, his oath; despite his promise, he appears not to have dispersed a single volume of his book collection.
When he had fully recovered from his illness, Jerome revised his plans: instead of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem he would join the hermits in the Syrian desert. He pressured his friend Heliodorus to join him. After long, sometimes fraught discussions, he managed to drive Heliodorus back to Italy, then went to the desert alone.
The solitary hermits of the desert were not really solitary. Near Chalcis the barren landscape teemed with gangs of cave-dwellers and hermits, most of whom were dirty, uneducated and eccentric. They wore squalid garments made of hair, ate raw herbs and sometimes loaded their bodies with chains. One hermit was said to have lived for thirty years on a diet of barley bread and stagnant muddy water. Another kept himself alive in an abandoned cistern with a diet of five dates a day. The hermits wanted to subdue their bodies, break their own wills and crush every last carnal impulse. To that end they reduced all eating and drinking to a minimum, and deliberately made their sleep difficult. This was how they atoned for their sins and brought themselves closer to God.
Jerome’s hermit-cave was not entirely unfurnished. Although he slept on the bare earth, and sought to discipline his rebellious body by reducing it almost to a skeleton, he was still capable of receiving and entertaining regular visitors, including his friend Evagrius. Also, he brought his entire library with him to his cave, and employed several assistants to copy out books for him. He had leisure to teach himself the rudiments of Hebrew. There appears to have been at least one private tutor in his entourage.
In the desert Jerome’s correspondence was more extensive than ever; he wrote a great many letters asking for the forgiveness of those he had offended, and attacking those who would not forgive him. He concluded a long note to his aunt Castorina by warning her that if she continued to refuse to reply he would consider himself absolved of all wrongdoing. For all his desire to leave the world and the temptations of society, Jerome appears to have hated being alone. The fires of lust had not been extinguished either. Nobody wanted to join him in the desert – not even the friends to whom he wrote elaborate letters praising the ascetic life and its spiritual joys.
During the winter of 376/7, Jerome began to realise that he was unpopular among the hermits in the surrounding desert. He wrote a letter to Pope Damasus complaining about the acrimonious disputes about the Trinity into which he had been dragged by neighbouring hermits, who had the gall to question his orthodoxy. Jerome was particularly exasperated by how quarrelsome everybody else was. The entire Eastern Church seemed to him chaotic, self-contradictory and needlessly argumentative. Everybody he spoke to wanted to engage in a shouting-match about Christian doctrine. Pope Damasus’ reply is not recorded.
A few months later, Jerome wrote another, shorter letter to the Pope. His mood had not improved. Now he felt more persecuted than ever. The nameless adversary who had relentlessly pursued him in Aquileia continued to hound him; three separate Christian factions wanted to claim him as their own; his neighbours among the desert monks had become a menace. He found himself the target of threats, abuse and insinuations; his life as a solitary hermit was becoming intolerable. His many enemies were trying to silence him, which was why he wrote so many lengthy letters. Evidently somebody wanted to get rid of him; he and his team of copyists and his private Hebrew tutor no longer felt welcome among the hermit community in the desert. Pope Damasus’ reply is not recorded.
Jerome had lost all his illusions about monks, and began publicly to condemn their hypocrisy and arrogance, particularly after he returned to Evagrius’ house in Antioch before Easter 377. He stayed for another year, licking his wounds whilst enjoying Evagrius’ hospitality.
Retreat from the desert
This second extended period in Antioch was fruitful: Jerome produced his first major literary work in Latin, a biography of a hermit whom he claimed as the real founder of Christian monasticism, twenty years before Saint Antony of Egypt. The book evidently alienated not only Jerome’s former neighbours in the desert but also Evagrius, who had written a noted biography of Saint Antony of Egypt. Jerome also began to gain renown as the author of controversial pamphlets. Evagrius asked him to leave.
Jerome arrived in Constantinople at the beginning of 379. He claims to have become a disciple of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, bishop of Constantinople; though he is nowhere mentioned in Gregory’s voluminous corpus of surviving writings, even in passing.
At Constantinople Jerome embarked on his career as a literary translator, beginning with the Chronicle of Eusebius of Caesarea, the bishop who has long been regarded as the father of Church history. Jerome’s translation included numerous editorial interjections meant to correct the original work, bring it up to date, or else simply share the translator’s own opinions and knowledge with the reader. It is a mark of this translation’s qualities that it was popular in areas of Mediaeval Europe that remained untouched by the Renaissance.
Jerome was not so much a historian as an enthusiastic lister of facts, not all of which were judged critically for accuracy, veracity or relevance to the subject at hand. His historical essays are distinguished by the author’s loyalty to personal friends, and extensive revelations of Jerome’s preferred opinions, preoccupations of the moment and fluctuating emotional state. Occasionally the tone is inexplicably violent.
Incessant reading and translation nearly blinded Jerome. His eyesight suffered further due to a shortage of stenographers. In the aftermath of the Gothic invasion of Stridon in 379, Jerome’s family temporarily cut off his allowance. He was forced to carry out his own copying for some time.
The joys of bureaucracy
In 382 Jerome accompanied Paulinus, Bishop of Antioch, to Rome. Back in the Eternal City he had the opportunity to meet many of the figures to whom he had been writing frequent long letters; these included Pope Damasus himself. The Pope decided to put him to work as a papal secretary.
Jerome thrived as a bureaucrat. He found a great deal of spare time for personal projects: the Pope was over eighty, and encouraged his new secretary to spend as much time as possible distracting himself on his own. It was Pope Damasus’ idea to encourage Jerome to go off and translate the entire Bible into serviceable Latin, preferably in a monastery somewhere. Before starting that project in earnest, Jerome decided to improve on existing ‘Old Latin’ translations of the New Testament.
Jerome’s improved versions of the Gospels led to howls of protest. He responded by describing his critics as “two-legged asses” who preferred to lap up muddy rivulets when they could have drunk, as he did, from the pellucid fountain of the Gospels’ original Greek. This was his way of criticising their mastery of Latin as well as Greek: the ‘Old Latin’ translations of the New Testament were poorly written even by the standards of Late Antiquity. Whilst Jerome did not think highly of St Paul or the Evangelists as prose stylists (none, after all, had been educated by Donatus) at least they were superior to the uncouth early Christians who had first tried to render these texts into Latin. Jerome began to amass further enemies in some number.
During this sojourn in Rome, Jerome became intimate with a small circle of aristocratic Christian widows, whom he encouraged in their tendencies towards strict asceticism. His most devoted follower was Saint Paula of Rome, one of the very richest women in the Empire at the time. Her daughter Blaesilla had been seriously ill; Jerome encouraged her to take on strict ascetic discipline; she died. Saint Eustochium, Paula’s other daughter, managed in the end to live almost as long as Jerome did.
For the first time in his life, Jerome was fashionable, and much sought-after, if only by old women in mansions. He often had influence over their daughters as well. Certain pious young women began to receive inordinately elaborate letters encouraging them to rigorous chastity and self-mortification – there were dangerous desires and appetites to repress and suppress. One of Jerome’s most inspired rhetorical performances of the period is addressed to a wealthy teenage virgin, whom he strongly encourages in chastity with repeated warnings about the temptations of lust. These are described with great variety and imagination. Not long after writing this letter he was forced to leave Rome.
Pope Damasus died on 11 December 384. With his main patron out of the way Jerome was open to scrutiny by his enemies, who began to investigate his relationships with his various devout lady-followers. The Church opened an inquiry into his activities. Jerome was eventually acquitted; his name was fully cleared; but he was now less celebrated than ever, having declared Rome as the great harlot arrayed in purple and scarlet that had appeared in the visions of St John at Patmos (Revelations 17.1-6).
Farewell to Rome
Even as he stood on the deck of the ship that would take him from Rome’s port at Ostia to Jerusalem, Jerome was seen dictating a long, vehement letter of self-defence to one of his richer widow-followers. Several of his pious lady-friends decided to accompany him to Jerusalem, including Paula and Eustochium. The precise size of his entourage is unknown, but they appear to have had a large ship to themselves; their luggage included Jerome’s entire library.
Jerome and his entourage spent a year touring the Holy Land; they stopped for a month at Alexandria so that Jerome could listen to the lectures of the blind theologian Didymus, who had been a pupil of the vegetarian teetotaller Origen, who was later regarded as a heretic. Rufinus had also studied with Didymus, though for rather longer.
Paula and Eustochium would never leave Jerome’s side; they built a monastery for him outside Jerusalem, with an extensive library to house all his books. The convent that they built for themselves had at least fifty nuns; Jerome’s monastery retained considerably fewer long-term residents.
Jerome’s old friend Rufinus had established a monastery of his own by the Mount of Olives. He too had a wealthy widow to support his activities: his patron was Saint Melania the Elder. Both men’s monasteries copied out books; Rufinus’ subordinates often found themselves employed to expand St Jerome’s library even further.
Bursts of activity
Jerome was not necessarily suited to the role of Abbot; he was particularly exercised by the need to be hospitable to foreigners. Even so, he was remarkably prolific in Jerusalem. Paula was a much more reliable source of income than his family. He began to compose commentaries on individual books of the Bible to supplement his continuing translations. His commentaries feature numerous frank descriptions of those who had offended him, or challenged his opinions. The commentaries on St Paul’s Epistles are a particularly rich resource for data on the personal habits of bishops whom he regarded as unsuitable for their duties.
During this period of unprecedented creativity Jerome took it upon himself to compile authoritative reference works on subjects that he had recently introduced himself to; his collection of Hebrew etymologies is limited in its application, though inventive in its way, and features a notably low proportion of invectives directed against now-forgotten contemporaries. This work inspired him to begin translating the Old Testament into Latin directly from Hebrew, without reliance on the Greek Septuagint (itself of the 3rd century BC) as an intermediary text or starting-point, except where strictly necessary.
Jerome began this work in 390; he announced that he had completed the task in 392, though he overestimated the speed of his progress by fourteen years or so. These Bible translations were circulated book by book, and evidently caused widespread consternation throughout the Church, a fact to which Jerome draws attention in the often-vituperative prefaces to his versions of Samuel, Isaiah and the Psalms in particular.
Jerome’s most celebrated original work, De viris illustribus, is a chronological catalogue of 135 distinguished Christian writers beginning with Saint Peter (who died between AD 64 and 68) and ending with Jerome himself. An influential friend of whom we know nothing is said to have pressed Jerome to write this.
While defective from a scholarly point of view, and in some respects utterly reprehensible, De viris illustribus is illuminating on the subject of Jerome himself, even by the general standards of everything he wrote. He held an unusual number of men in contempt, including Saint Ambrose of Milan; that said, this work is generally less overtly libellous than his pamphlet on Christian chastity from this period. The tract caused considerable embarrassment to Jerome’s remaining friends in Rome. Whilst it is in places shockingly crude and coarse, Jerome was surprised to learn that it outraged many readers and added to his collection of enemies.
-“St. Jerome,” from the workshop of Marinus van Reymerswaele, ca. 1489 – ca. 1546, oil on wood, height, 101 cm (39.7 inches), width, 129 cm (50.7 inches), Swedish Nationalmuseum, please click on the image for greater detail
Controversies and strife
Around the beginning of 393, Jerome began to fall out, first privately, then publicly, with his old friend Rufinus. The origin of the dispute is itself disputed, although Jerome’s derogatory remarks extended beyond Rufinus himself to Melania as well as the local bishop, who eventually tried to retaliate by having Jerome and his monks expelled from Palestine by imperial command. But the minister instructed to carry this instruction to the Roman administration was stopped outside Constantinople and cut to pieces by a Gothic general (27 November 395).
Multiple attempts at mediating the conflict failed. Jerome published a blistering attack on the bishop, ridiculing him on personal as well as doctrinal grounds (January 397). Yet the bishop refused to be drawn into the controversy. In the end, Melania engineered a reconciliation on Easter Sunday 397; Jerome and Rufinus were forced to shake one another by the hand and declare that all had been forgiven. Both men were so humiliated that their mutual resentment only grew deeper. After a quarter-century in the Holy Land, Rufinus decided to leave the monastery that Melania had built for him, and moved back to Rome.
Rufinus had not intended to renew hostilities from Rome. But for whatever reason he decided to produce an expurgated Latin translation of one of Origen’s more hotly disputed texts, toning down or leaving out passages that might have outraged many faithful Christians. Why Rufinus felt compelled to translate this work in particular has never satisfactorily been explained. He tried to cover himself by insinuating in the preface to his translation that Jerome, as a former student of the blind Didymus, was more than friendly to Origen’s ideas. Jerome’s reaction was perhaps predictable.
-Saint Jerome in his study, Pieter Coecke van Aelst, 1530; Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA).
The ugly and protracted scandal that surrounded Origen’s work at the end of the fourth century was based to a great degree on Church politics. Pope Anastasius I (r. 399-402) was not well-read in theology, although even he could see that there were theological problems in Origen’s work; he decided to end the dispute by condemning Origen and all his current followers.
Rufinus blamed Jerome for vindictively spreading rumours about his unorthodox opinions, claiming that he was not a heretic but a mere innocent literary translator producing a controversial text purely for the sake of the intellectually curious who did not have the Greek to read Origen’s original work. He noted that even Jerome himself had praised – and indeed translated – Origen. This was not wise. Jerome was not instantly provoked; but inevitably he would respond.
Rufinus laboured for two years on his Apologia against Jerome, which circulated widely from 401. Whilst lacking in dialectical verve, the pamphlet was highly effective. It made extensive use of documents, evidence and common-sensical logic. But the reply, the two-book-long Apologia against Rufinus, appeared at great speed even by Jerome’s usual standards. This was a brilliant polemic, displaying a relatively cool control of tone that is without parallel in Jerome’s oeuvre. The perpetual sneer of mild contempt, and the only occasional descent into slanging, demonstrate an artistic discipline of which Jerome had hitherto rarely seemed capable.
Penitent Saint Jerome, Albrecht Dürer, 1496 (National Gallery, London).
Some months later, Jerome felt compelled to add a third book to the Apologia against Rufinus. Rufinus regarded this as even more violently insulting than the previous two books, despite Jerome’s announcement in the preface that he had decided to refrain from abusing his opponent, citing St Paul’s reminder (Romans 12.19ff.) that a Christian ought not to seek revenge. On these grounds, he instructed the reader not to consider all the criticism of Rufinus’ wealth, mendacity, cowardice, pedantry, literary incompetence and so on, to be merely vengeful. Jerome thought that old men should not invent calumnies against the elderly, in the way that thugs slander gangsters, whores slander prostitutes and buffoons slander clowns.
For all the apparent poison and vitriol, Jerome held out what was, by his standards, an olive branch to his lifelong friend. But in the wake of this addition to the pamphlet a reconciliation was unlikely. In response, Rufinus tried to maintain a dignified silence. Jerome continued to denounce and ridicule his former friend even after he was dead.
The end of anger
In 404, Paula died, having consumed her entire vast fortune. Eustochium was left with crippling debts; another patron was urgently needed to save his monastery and Eustochium’s convent from starvation. Meanwhile, Alaric the Visigoth was terrorising the Empire; Ostrogoths and Vandals invaded and pillaged Italy as well as Gaul. Jerome was terrified: he understood just how difficult it would be from now on to solicit donations for his monastery.
In a letter of 407 Jerome counselled a wealthy Dalmatian, Julian, whose family had been brutally wiped out by invaders, to respond to all these tragic deaths by stripping himself of all possessions and remaining property and embracing Christ-like poverty. Similar appeals are found throughout his surviving correspondence from the period.
Throughout the last dozen or so years of his life, Jerome relied increasingly on Origen’s work as an aid to producing commentaries. Not because he necessarily agreed with what he found in Origen; on the contrary he was fuelled by a desire to contradict and deride Origenism. Origen’s errors obsessed him, and not merely because they provided a convenient vehicle for proxy attacks on Rufinus, who died in Sicily in 412, much to his former friend’s openly-expressed satisfaction. Jerome’s few remaining friends in Rome were militantly anti-Origenist. This too does not explain his fanatical monomania, and late-life animus against a writer who died eight decades before his birth.
From around 414 onwards, Jerome began a campaign of aggression, the last of his life, against the “menacingly effeminate” heretic Pelagius, who was as simperingly passive-aggressive as St Jerome was active-aggressive. Within a few years Pelagian teachings would be declared heretical. But Jerome’s literary warfare was interrupted in 416 when his monastery and the convent of Eustochium were attacked and set on fire by a mob of hooligans. Monks and nuns were brutally assaulted; one deacon died in the violence. The attackers were thought to be uneducated lay Christians who were attracted to Pelagius’ message.
Jerome’s library was destroyed in the fire. He personally blamed his old enemy the Bishop of Jerusalem for enabling this attack, and doing nothing to stop it when it was going on. The Pope agreed with Jerome, and sent a blistering, humiliating rebuke to the bishop. But Jerome was shattered by the attack. His health rapidly declined. So did Eustochium’s. She died on 28 September 420; Jerome died two days later, on 30 September, in his ninetieth year.
Jerome prayed all his life to be released from his great vice of anger. He was, if only in death. Let his life stand as the ultimate proof that quite literally anybody can become a saint.”
-by Karlo Broussard
“Some Protestants believe, contrary to Catholic teaching, that our justification doesn’t consist in us being intrinsically righteous. Rather, God merely declares us righteous, whereby we receive Christ’s personal righteousness, and God treats us just as he treats Christ. In other words, God sees Christ when he sees us.
To make their case, these Protestants will often appeal to 2 Corinthians 5:21, where Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Just as Christ is said to be sin when he wasn’t, so the argument goes, so too sinners are reckoned to be righteous (“become the righteousness of God”) when they aren’t. And if we’re reckoned righteous without being intrinsically righteous, then it must be Christ’s righteousness that we receive.
Let’s see how we might respond to this argument.
Key to the argument is its interpretation of the term sin. It interprets sin as literally referring to actions that contravene God’s law. But we have good reason to think Paul is referring to something else here—namely, a sin offering.
In the Old Testament, the term “sin” (Greek, hamartia) is often used to refer to a “sin offering.” Consider, for example, Leviticus 4:33:
If he brings a lamb as his offering for a sin offering [Greek, hamartia], he shall bring a female without blemish, and lay his hand upon the head of the sin offering [Greek, hamartia], and kill it for a sin offering in the place where they kill the burnt offering.
(The English translator inserted the third “sin offering” above for clarity. There’s no corresponding hamartia in the original text, so the third “sin offering” above does not translate hamartia only in a technical sense.)
Other passages include Leviticus 5:12 and 6:25. Isaiah 53:10 directly applies hamartia to the suffering Messiah, who is expected to make himself a sin offering: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin [Greek, hamartia].”
It’s against this Old Testament backdrop that Paul speaks of Jesus as being “made sin.” And he does so within a context where he speaks of Christ reconciling the world back to God:
- 18: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
- 19: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.”
- 20: “We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
Given this context of Christ’s reconciliation and the Old Testament usage of hamartia to refer to a sin offering, it’s reasonable to interpret Paul’s use of hamartia in 2 Corinthians 5:21 as referring to Jesus, the suffering Messiah, becoming the atoning sacrifice for the redemption of the world rather than being considered something he’s not: sin itself.
Since the fundamental assumption of the argument that we’re considering here is false, it fails to justify (yes, the pun is intended) the idea that we can be reckoned righteous when we’re not actually (intrinsically) righteous.
This leads to a second response. Given our above interpretation that “sin” refers to “sin offering,” notice that Paul doesn’t think Christ is “considered” a sin offering; rather, Christ actually is the sin offering. Jesus bore our sins as the sacrificial victim so we could be reconciled back to God, as Paul teaches in the preceding verses (vv. 18-20). If Christ actually is the atoning sacrifice and is not merely “considered” to be so, and our “becoming the righteousness of God” is parallel to that, which many Protestants affirm, then we should interpret our becoming righteous as actually becoming righteous rather than being merely considered or reckoned righteous.
Protestant New Testament scholar N.T. Wright concurs:
The little word genōmetha in 2 Corinthians 5:21b—“that we might become God’s righteousness in him”—does not sit comfortably with the normal interpretation, according to which God’s righteousness is “imputed” or “reckoned” to believers. If that was what Paul meant, with the overtones of “extraneous righteousness” that normally come with that theory, the one thing he ought not to have said is that we “become” that righteousness. Surely that leans far too much toward a Roman Catholic notion of infused righteousness?
It’s important to note here that Catholics do not believe that the phrase “becoming the righteousness of God” means we become the righteousness that is God’s own righteousness in virtue, being pure existence. Rather, the idea is that the righteousness that we receive when we’re justified is a righteousness that comes from God, since it is he who makes us just. This is the sense that Paul has in mind in Philippians 3:9, where he writes, “That I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
Now, it’s possible that the phrase “becoming the righteousness of God” refers not to something about us, but rather to God’s own righteousness, or faithfulness to the covenant, being manifest in the world through us. This is how Paul uses the phrase “the righteousness of God” in Romans 3:25-26: “This [Jesus’s expiatory death] was to show God’s righteousness . . . it was to prove at the present time that he is righteous.” So Paul could be saying in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that God has manifested his righteousness (fidelity to the covenant) by saving us through Christ, who is the promised sin offering (“sin”) that reconciles the human race back to God.
Although this interpretation of the phrase “becoming the righteousness of God” excludes 2 Corinthians 5:21 as positive evidence for God making us actually righteous, it remains the case that 2 Corinthians 5:21 does not support the teaching that we, as justified Christians, have only our legal standing changed before God.
So, as Catholics, we need not change our view of justification based on 2 Corinthians 5:21. We can still believe that when God justifies us, he makes us intrinsically righteous by his grace. In the words of Paul, he makes us a “new creation,” with the old passing away and the new having come (2 Cor. 5:17).
Love & truth,
-by Howard Charest
“In the midst of a wild theological discussion, some Evangelical acquaintances asked me what I had gained by converting to Catholicism. I had embraced Evangelicalism for about five years, but its theological and spiritual inadequacies contributed to my nearly losing faith in Christ. Catholicism restored and deepened both my faith in and my love for Christ, and in so doing it began to fulfill my deepest spiritual and intellectual longings.
Raised at first as a Lutheran and then as a Presbyterian, by the time I finished high school I nevertheless had become an atheist of the scientific humanist sort. Scientific objections to Christianity, such as evolutionary theory, had been my primary stumbling block. But within a year of graduating from high school, during a personal crisis concerning the meaning of life and after I had made a commitment to embrace truth whatever it might be, I read How Should We Then Live? by the Evangelical thinker Francis Schaeffer.
His reasoned critique of humanism opened my heart to the gospel, and, recognizing myself as a sinner and morally guilty before God, I believed that through Christ’s sacrifice my sins had been forgiven. I identified my conversion experience as the “born again” experience I had heard so much about during high school, and my attitudes towards life truly began to change.
Schaeffer’s interpretation of Christianity left a decisive mark on me. On the positive side, I gained an interest in defending Christianity intellectually (especially through philosophy) and a fascination with the history of theology, philosophy, and culture. For this reason, he still remains a man I admire.
On the negative side, Schaeffer left me with the conviction that true Christianity equals Reformation Christianity, represented in the modern world by Evangelicalism. For the next five years I would assume, virtually without question, that Christianity stands or falls with Evangelicalism. However fascinating the Catholic intellectual and spiritual tradition might appear to be—and during the next few years I occasionally would feel a pull in this direction—intellectually I was convinced that Catholicism was an apostate religion.
Yet it was the expectations concerning Christianity raised by Schaeffer which ultimately would make my departure from Evangelicalism necessary. These expectations are best expressed by something Schaeffer wrote in The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century. He explained that Christianity is the true and highest mysticism, for it is a personal relationship with God which is grounded in rationality. In other words, Christianity is a rational answer to the question of the meaning of life, one which fulfills man’s deepest spiritual longings and resolves his deepest spiritual problems. Two developments would lead me to conclude that Evangelicalism could not fulfill these expectations and that, if Evangelicalism equals Christianity, I should have to abandon the latter as well.
First, a number of emphases within Evangelicalism would contribute to my having a spiritual burnout. Second, I came to believe that Evangelical thought, based ostensibly on the Bible as its sole authority, was incapable of meeting the many intellectual challenges facing it. I would come to the conclusion that Schaeffer’s defense of Reformation Christianity had serious limitations even though his critique of humanism contained important insights.
Ultimately, and much to my surprise, I would find that it is the Catholic intellectual tradition which fits the glowing descriptions Schaeffer had penned of Christianity’s intellectual viability and that it is Catholic spirituality which most adequately fulfills the Christian mysticism Schaeffer hinted at.
After my conversion experience, my first Evangelical involvement was as a member of a Lutheran church. I remained as such for two years, when, through the influence of Campus Crusade for Christ, I left to become a Baptist. Looking back, I realized that part of my discontent with Lutheranism came from this: Although Lutheranism acknowledges the importance of doing good works, it seems more interested in consoling sinners than in showing them how to overcome sin. One of the benefits of being a Catholic, I have found, is a spiritual discipline centered around mortification and penance. This discipline is powerful in overcoming sin.
In the same year of my conversion, shortly after I joined the Lutheran Church, I became involved in Campus Crusade. At first Campus Crusade benefited me greatly, both spiritually and socially. Crusade’s emphasis on the Spirit-filled life helped me grow in personal character, and I was encouraged to spend time reading the Bible daily.
This I loved to do, and I became an avid student of Scripture, eventually beginning a personal study of Greek in order to draw closer to the meaning of the New Testament. In addition to these spiritual benefits, Crusade’s emphasis on evangelism and discipleship helped me learn to communicate my beliefs with boldness, and through the love and acceptance I found in this group I progressed considerably in social maturity.
I immersed myself in the Crusade way of life, evangelizing frequently and conducting small discipleship groups. One semester I led the Crusade group at a local community college. But the overall spirituality and practice of Crusade worked to inflict on me an intense spiritual burnout, almost destroying my Christian life. And this spirituality and practice, I would discover, is fairly typical of large segments of Evangelicalism.
The major cause of this burnout was Campus Crusade’s emphasis on activity. I found that the genuineness of one’s spirituality was measured by his involvement in evangelism and discipleship. This pressure created in me an assumption that, if I did not have a personal ministry, I was not living the true Christian life.
In many ways this would have a corrupting influence on me, an experience which, I would insist, is shared by other Evangelicals. For example, the need to find opportunities to share our faith and win disciples would lead us to develop friendships with people—Christians and non-Christians alike—for an ulterior motive: the practical goal of fulfilling the Great Commission. People tended to become means for us to achieve our ministry objectives and this because our lives were dominated and motivated by an activist cause.
Perhaps the most corrupting effect was the way this activism turned me into a manipulator of people. It was bad enough that I felt manipulated by my fellow Crusaders, but it hurt me more that I began to manipulate others. People had applied subtle pressure on me to become involved, and as I sought my own disciples I put pressure on them. The great amount of recognition given to those with a successful ministry further fueled this manipulation.
I fell victim to this syndrome because my life had become identified with a cause and my participation in this cause was my primary source of satisfaction. It has required Catholic spirituality with its emphasis on the path of humility and on the performing of quiet deeds of mercy and charity to begin uprooting these tendencies from my heart.
One might wonder what became of the personal relationship with Christ so tirelessly preached by Evangelicals. Certainly Crusaders emphasized the importance of this relationship, but in my experience their practical orientation limited its development.
Scripture became a tool to be controlled by the reader to develop his character and increase his ministry. Absent was the Catholic understanding that through receptive, loving meditation on Scripture Christ is conceived in our souls and begotten into the world through deeds of love. Even our praising of God was strictly active, as we looked for attributes of God in Scripture for which we could praise him. Absent was the Catholic understanding of silent, loving adoration.
As my burnout developed, I dreaded the very idea of discipleship, and my Christian life became strained. I sought deeper roots in the Baptist church I had started attending, one of the finest Evangelical churches in my area. Unfortunately, this church could do little to help me regain a sound Christian life for the simple reason that its spirituality differed little from Crusade’s.
It really should not have surprised me that this church should have the same orientation as Crusade; after all, Evangelicals define themselves as Christians committed to the spread of the gospel. Their defining characteristic and reason for existing is commitment to a particular cause. This was shown vividly during a talk by a professor from Talbot Seminary. He explained we were put on Earth not to learn to worship God–after all, he reasoned, we will worship God better when we see him face to face in heaven–but to evangelize.
Evangelicals are limited by the press of practical activity. The efficacy of their public worship is crippled by its subordination to practical activity. I found that Baptist-type worship is essentially the same as Crusade’s: The singing and other activities are structured primarily to encourage enthusiasm in the congregants (and to evangelize non-Christians).
Both Crusade and contemporary Evangelicalism are descended from nineteenth-century revivalism. A hallmark of revivalism was the belief that excitement was necessary to spread and revive the true religion. Often Evangelical church services are conducted as if they were designed for entertainment; there is never any dead time. The congregation is fed songs, novel prayers, and preaching, with no opportunity for contemplative prayer.
Catholicism subordinates all causes to worship. In Catholicism, the summit of the Christian life is public worship of God in the liturgy, in continuity with the worship of God in heaven by the angels and saints. There is an essential continuity between our lives in heaven and on earth. This liturgical worship begins in receptivity—that is, in contemplation, which is nothing other than receptivity to reality and to God—and ends in sacrifice as we offer ourselves to God after receiving him deeper into our lives through the Eucharist.
This worship overflows into all of life, even the most active life, for even the most active life is subordinate to contemplative and sacrificial worship. From this overflow all of our activity is elevated to worship insofar as we become living sacrifices to God, expressed through our deeds of love. Evangelism is one form of these good deeds, an act of mercy to the souls of others as we, nourished by worship, draw others through their repentance and conversion into the true worship and adoration of God. Through the examples of Catholic saints such as Dominic and Catherine of Siena I have been filled with a new desire for the salvation of others. But Dominic in particular has shown me how to evangelize in accord with my own abilities and personality—through my love of learning—rather than according to the legalistic mold of Campus Crusade.
Thus for me the greatest benefit of Catholicism has been the restoration of a deep relationship with Christ, and I learned this through reading classical Catholic spiritual writers and theologians. Contrary to popular opinion, Catholic thinkers, such as Thomas Aquinas, always understood the need for a personal relationship with Christ.
They never used this term since, after all, even enemies can know each other personally, but explained instead that by justification we are made friends and lovers of God. And these Catholic writers understood what it meant to be a friend and lover of God better than any Evangelical writer I had ever encountered.
I learned from Bernard of Clairvaux and Catherine of Siena that the most fundamental form of prayer is the loving adoration of God, a prayer which exceeds the ability of words to express. Whereas Evangelicals often think of the Spirit-filled life as one in which the Spirit controls us, Catholic writers teach that being Spirit-filled means that, as we meditate on and contemplate Christ and the Trinity, the Spirit ignites our hearts with love, and thus we willingly obey God.
Evangelicals speak often of a relationship with God based on the gratitude felt when they realized that God loves the unlovable, but my gratitude and love for God has deepened as I’ve learned that God by his grace goes even further and makes us lovable in his sight. It is a commonplace among Catholic writers that God by grace beautifies the soul, adorning it with virtues; he does not leave us hateful to him, but dignifies us by enabling us through the grace of the indwelling Spirit of Christ to become worthy of eternal life.
The two aspects of Catholicism which Evangelicals most often claim are a hindrance to a personal relationship with Christ, ritual and hierarchy, have become for me a tremendous help in developing that relationship.
The sacrament of the Eucharist has created in me a deep awareness of my dependence on the grace of God. Genuflecting at Mass moves me to bow before Christ’s authority in all areas of my life, an experience which reflects the Catholic principle that bodily acts can influence the soul’s disposition.
The hierarchical elements of the Church have helped me draw nearer to Christ. Going to confession humbles me and helps uproot sinful tendencies from my heart. Obedience to the teachings and authority of the bishops and the Pope has helped free me from bondage to my own interpretations as the measure of truth. I believe my capacity to receive Christ has been deepened through this obedience. After all, Jesus said that whoever receives His messengers receives Him (Matt. 10:40).
Even though I value these spiritual benefits more than any other benefit, it was the intellectual struggles I went through which sealed my burnout and paved the way for my turning toward Catholicism. While in Crusade I spent much time in personal evangelism. As I shared my faith with other college students, intellectual objections to Christianity were hurled at me.
Being convinced that Christianity is not an irrational religion, I strove to find answers. I consulted commentaries and the writings of various Evangelicals to find solutions. Gradually, I began to find these answers inadequate and became disillusioned with Evangelical thought, wondering if my relationship with Christ was being maintained at the expense of truth.
The first category of intellectual difficulties comprised biblical passages which conflicted with Evangelical theology. For example, in preaching that we are justified by faith alone, I often encountered the objection that James, in the second chapter of his epistle, clearly states we are not justified by faith alone.
Evangelical commentators offered explanations of how this passage could agree with the Protestant interpretation of Paul’s doctrine of justification. I never found these interpretations satisfactory. I had the uneasy feeling that the passage was being explained away rather than explained.
Jesus’ emphasis on the role of works in salvation further disturbed me, while Paul himself never uses the phrase “faith alone.” In fact, the only time “faith alone” or “faith only” is used in Scripture is by James, and he conclusively rejects the concept: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Schaeffer’s influence prevented me from finding a solution to this problem so long as I remained a committed Evangelical.
Many other passages I encountered seemed to conflict with the broad outline of Evangelical theology and spirituality. This left me with a feeling of unease, yet I was hopeful that by trying to be more objective I could develop a more accurate understanding of biblical theology and spirituality. I was never able to do this while an Evangelical.
As I realize now, the narrow confines of Protestant theology had constricted my ability to penetrate deep into the teachings of Scripture. Ironically, after I began to read Catholic writers, especially the Church Fathers and medieval writers, Scripture began to make more sense to me.
Catholic thought opened Scripture up to me in a way Evangelical thought never could. From my Bible study I knew many Bible verses, but as I now realize their rich meanings typically eluded me. The truly decisive intellectual problem for me centered around the second pillar of Evangelicalism, the doctrine of sola scriptura, the Bible as the sole authority of faith and practice. This problem would involve me in epistemology, the study of how we can have knowledge at all.
Several specific issues gradually wore away my belief in sola scriptura. First, in my Baptist days I became interested in evangelizing Catholics, even acquiring materials from Mission to Catholics for this purpose. Seeking to find and expose the errors in the Catholic view of tradition and Church authority, I studied passages of Scripture used by Evangelicals in their polemic against the Church. Ultimately I found these arguments wanting.
Evangelicals argue that the injunction in Revelation 22:18-19 against adding anything to the “words of the prophecy of this book” secured sola scriptura and precluded Catholic tradition. But this “book of prophecy” refers only to the book of Revelation. This book was written as an individual book, not as the last section of an already-compiled New Testament.
Furthermore, I encountered passages of Scripture which positively suggested the Catholic view. In John 16:13-15 Jesus tells his apostles that the Spirit will guide them into “all truth.” This presented a dilemma for me. If we allowed that this promise extended beyond the eleven apostles then present, the Catholic understanding of Tradition and the infallibility of the magisterium would become reasonable. If the promise applied only to those present and to no one else, then many of the New Testament writers, such as Paul, could not have been inspired.
One could reply that the original apostles could pass on the grace of this spiritual guidance to others, but this implies successors to the apostles—and that is precisely the Catholic position.
It is not enough to say, as some Evangelicals do, that the apostles, such as Peter, merely approved what non-apostles, such as Mark, had written. If Mark’s Gospel was only “approved” by Peter, then that Gospel is only accurate, not inspired. For it to be inspired, the grace of the Spirit described in John 16 must have been passed on to Mark so he too would be inspired. Furthermore, this Evangelical argument concedes that it required the authority of the Church, with the apostles as its spokesmen, to determine what should be included in Scripture.
The challenge of secularism and atheism, from which Christianity had originally rescued me, still haunted me. I decided as I finished my studies in English to pursue a second major in philosophy, hoping to work through the philosophical challenges I had encountered while evangelizing. My studies began with epistemology.
Exposed to the scourges of positivism and Humean empiricism, I sought a foundation for response in the thought of Carl F. H. Henry, a leading Evangelical thinker. He did not help much; conceding much ground to empiricism, he argues that reason cannot prove the existence of God. Instead, all theology must be based on a single presupposition: the living God revealed in his Word. Henry presupposes the truth of (Evangelical) Christianity and proceeds to show the flaws of every other system of thought.
This question-begging not only failed to convince me, but it also showed the impoverishment of sola scriptura. Henry claimed his theory of knowledge was the biblical view, but it really stems from Descartes and post-Cartesian philosophy. It became apparent that in practice even Evangelicals don’t follow sola scriptura.
I had some familiarity with the historical defense of the authority of Scripture proposed by John Warwick Montgomery, an important Evangelical theologian opposed to presuppositionalism. In his view, we become convinced by historical evidence that Christ is the Son of God and that he spoke of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. This historical approach suggested Catholicism rather than Evangelicalism.
In the next phase on my studies I began investigating the thought of philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, Hegel, and Heidegger. These writers exhibited a depth of thought and, yes, spirituality I never had found as an Evangelical. Although I could not give up my love for Christ, I was taken captive by philosophy. Two parallel processes began. On the one hand, I moved in the direction of the liberal experience-based theology which originated with Schleiermacher in the nineteenth century. In this approach, theology is essentially reflection on personal experiences.
On the other hand, while doing research for my master’s, I began studying writings of the Church Fathers and medieval theologians and mystics. I was struck by the sublimity of their reflections on the Incarnation and the Trinity, for these doctrines–or rather the realities they express–were an integral part of Catholic spirituality, not simply doctrines that must be reluctantly defended, mere intellectual liabilities. I fell in love with these central Christian truths, but they were undermined by the man-centered spirituality of the liberal theology I had embraced.
Liberation from this new spiritual mire came though Catholic thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas, who had confronted philosophy and transformed it in the light of Christian revelation rather than retreating into an anti-intellectual ghetto. In doing this they were following the example of the apostle Paul, who exhorted us to bring every thought captive to Christ and who in his own preaching, as in Acts 17:28 and in his epistle to the Colossians, made use of Greek thought to communicate the gospel. This philosophical tradition helped me rediscover the reasonableness of the Christian faith and thus fulfilled the expectations raised by Schaeffer.
The final moment of my liberation from man-centered spirituality came with my discovery of Thomist realism, an alternative to empiricism and idealism. Three books especially helpful here were Ten Philosophical Mistakes by Mortimer Adler, Three Reformers by Jacques Maritain, and Leisure: The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper. Realism allows us to reach beyond our sense impressions, unlike empiricism, and to be receptive to reality outside ourselves, unlike idealism. The receptivity of Catholic philosophy fully supports the receptivity of genuine Christian spirituality. Catholic philosophy and spirituality, I found, form an integral unity.
My spiritual and intellectual journey has taken me into Catholicism, where I have found the true and highest mysticism, in which there are no limitations to the depth of the loving relationship we can have with Christ, a relationship which allows us to live in accord with truth and rationality. Although I have only begun to grasp the riches of Catholic spirituality, I have no doubt that in finding Catholicism I found Christ in a more profound way than ever before in my Christian experience.”
-by Tim Staples, Tim was raised a Southern Baptist. Although he fell away from the faith of his childhood, Tim came back to faith in Christ during his late teen years through the witness of Christian televangelists. Soon after, Tim joined the Marine Corps.
“In John Calvin’s magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, he presents a view of man that is very much like Luther’s but contrary to what we find in the pages of Sacred Scripture. Calvin used texts such as Genesis 6:5—“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”—and Romans 3:10ff—“None is righteous, no not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one ”—to prove that man is utterly depraved through the fall of Adam and Eve.
Calvin’s conclusion from these texts and others was to say, “The will is so utterly vitiated and corrupted in every part as to produce nothing but evil” (Institutes, bk. II, ch. II, para. 26).
What say we?
The context of the texts Calvin used actually demonstrates the opposite of his claim. For example, if we read forward just four verses in Genesis 6, we find: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. . . . Noah was a righteous [“just”] man, blameless in his generation” (Gen. 6:8-9). While we Catholics agree that God’s grace or “favor” was essential for Noah to be truly “just” before God, nevertheless Noah was truly just, according to the text.
As far as the quote from Romans is concerned, the greater context of the entire epistle must be understood. One of the central themes of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is the fact that it is through “the goodness of God” that we are led to repent (cf. Romans 2:4), to be justified (Romans 5:1-2), and persevere in the faith (cf. Romans 11:22). It is solely because of God’s grace that we become truly just:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God (Rom. 5:1-2).
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death . . . in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:2,4).
Notice the emphasis on the fact that man is made truly just so much so that he can fulfill “the just requirement of the law.” It doesn’t get any more just, or righteous, than that!
Thus, Romans 3:10ff simply does not teach total depravity in a Calvinist sense. It cannot when the context is understood.
Moreover, if we examine the verses where St. Paul paints his picture of the wicked who have “turned aside” and “done wrong,” we find he actually quotes Psalm 14:3. The next two verses of this Psalm explain who these “evil ones” are:
Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord? There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the generation of the righteous.
The Psalmist clearly refers to both evildoers and the righteous.
These and other passages from Romans tell us that Christ came to make us just, not that there are absolutely none who are just. We must stress again that it is because of the justice of Christ communicated to the faithful that their actions and, indeed, they themselves are truly made just. But they indeed are truly made just.
Little children, let no one deceive you. He who does right (Gr., ho poion tein dikaiousunein/ὁ ποιῶν τὴν δικαιοσύνην—“the one doing justice”) is righteous (Gr., dikaios estin/δίκαιός ἐστιν—“is just”) as He is righteous (Gr., kathos ekeinos dikaios estin/καθὼς ἐκεῖνος δίκαιός ἐστιν—“as He is just”). -1 Jn 3:7
Scripture couldn’t be clearer that the faithful are made truly just in their being and in their actions through the grace of Christ.
The problem magnified
More grave problems arise when we begin to follow the path Calvin lays for us with his first principle. Even when considering the unregenerate, Calvin is wrong about total depravity, because Scripture tells us even those outside of the law can “do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14-15).
Though Catholics agree with Calvinists that grace is necessary even for those who are ignorant of the law in order for them to be just before God—in other words, this text is not saying these pagans can be justified apart from grace—the text does infer that nature is not totally depraved, because man can clearly act justly on a natural level and by nature.
But an even more grave error comes to the fore when we consider his notion of the depravity of the just.
“Depravity of the just?” Yes. That was not a typo. According to John Calvin, even those who have been justified by Christ “cannot perform one work which, if judged on its own merits, is not deserving of condemnation” (Institutes, bk. III, ch. 9, para. 9). What a far cry this is from “he that acts justly is just” (I John 3:7) or the plain words of the Psalmist, who uses similar words as found in Genesis with regard to Abraham being justified by faith: “[Abraham] believed the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). In the Psalms we read: “Then Phineas stood up and interposed, and the plague was stayed. And that has been reckoned to him as righteousness from generation to generation” (Ps. 106:30-31).
Clearly, Phineas was justified by his works and not only by faith. In other words, Phineas’s works are truly “just as he is just,” to use the words of I John 3:7.
There are a multitude of biblical texts that come to mind at this point, but here are only three:
“For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned”? (Matt. 12:37).
“By works a man is justified and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24).
“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14).
These texts do not even come close to saying all of these works were “worthy of condemnation.” They say just the opposite!
We should be clear here: All “good works” man performs that contribute to his salvation are first and foremost God’s gifts, which, along with his cooperation, truly make him just and worthy to “walk with [Christ] in white; for [he is] worthy” (Rev. 3:4) by God’s grace and mercy. But we cannot escape the biblical fact that these works are truly just and they are truly the fruit of the just man himself.
Understanding the strange
When John Calvin says man is utterly dependent upon God for every single just thought in his mind (cf. Institutes, bk. II, ch. II, para. 27), Catholics will happily agree. And they would be correct: We do agree. However, appearances can be deceiving, because there is meaning beneath those words that Catholics cannot agree with.
With Calvin, there is no sense of grace aiding and empowering our wills as St. Augustine taught and the Catholic Church teaches. For Calvin, being “dependent upon God” means our free cooperation or free will has no part to play. God does not merely empower our wills; He operates them.
In the end, this may well be the most disturbing idea stemming from Calvin’s notion of total depravity: Man is essentially God’s puppet, a notion that led to Calvin attributing both the good and the evil actions of man to God.
And mind you, Calvin rejects and ridicules the Catholic notion of God merely permitting evil and working all things together for good. In his words:
Hence a distinction has been invented between doing and permitting, because to many it seemed altogether inexplicable how Satan and all the wicked are so under the hand and authority of God, that He directs their malice to whatever end He pleases” (Institutes, bk. I, ch. XVIII, para. 1).
Evildoers do not commit acts of depravity in spite of the command of God, but because of the command of God, according to Calvin (ibid., para. 4)!
Isaiah 45:7 and Amos 3:6 are used to teach that there is no evil that occurs that is not “impelled” by God’s positive command (ibid., para. 2).
God is the author of all those things that, according to these objectors, happen only by his inactive permission. He testifies that he creates light and darkness, forms good and evil (Is. [45:7]); that no evil happens which he hath not done (Amos [3:6]) (ibid., para. 3).
As Catholics we understand, as St. Paul teaches, “[S]ince they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct” (Rom. 1:28). This means God may well remove grace that is rejected. He may also hold back grace as well, but this is, as St. Augustine said, God’s “just judgment.”
But according to Calvin’s unbiblical teaching, God does not give grace in the first place and then “impels” men to act sinfully. As quoted above, according to Calvin, God causes evil. And we are not talking about physical evil here; we are talking about moral evil. That is categorically absurd! God cannot “do” or “impel” moral evil because He is infinitely and absolutely good.
God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:8, Numbers 23:19); “He cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim. 2:13) or act contrary to His nature. If God’s nature is one of love and pure being, it is absurd to say that He can “do” evil, which is by nature a lack of some perfection that ought to be present in a given nature. In fact, James 1:13 tells us that God not only cannot cause this kind of evil, He cannot even tempt anyone with evil. That is contrary to His nature.
The bottom line
When Isaiah 45:7 and Amos 3:6 say God “creates evil” and “does evil,” this must be seen only in a sense in which it does not contradict God’s nature and what is clearly revealed to us about God in Scripture. God can directly cause physical evil, such as the ten plagues he released against Egypt in Exodus. But this was an act of justice, which was morally upright and justified.
We can also say that God permits evil in view of the fact that He chose to create us with freedom. But even there, God permits evil only in view of His promise to bring good out of that evil, as is most profoundly demonstrated through the greatest evil in the history of the world: the Crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through this greatest evil God brings about the greatest good: the redemption of the world. God did not kill Christ, nor did he “impel” anyone to kill Christ.
But by virtue of His Omnipotence, He brings good out of the evil acts committed.”
“There is a certain convenience in the Calvinistic tendency to consider oneself “totally depraved.” If this were truly one’s condition, one would never need to ask forgiveness for any particular sin. There is no specific sin to name and no specific sin to avoid next time. There is no need to grow in self-knowledge, no rush to ask for the grace to overcome any one vice, no circumstance or moment to talk about and pray over the next day. If everything is a grave sin, then somehow nothing is a grave sin. As a result, even the sincerest followers of Jesus need never admit (or confess) anything particular. Moreover, our Savior’s own words—“Therefore, he who delivered me to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11b)—would prove false. Even Christ’s warning that Sodom’s sin was more tolerable than the rejection he encountered at Capernaum (Matt. 11:22-24) would ring untrue.
But this way of looking at sin is not in Sacred Scripture nor is it the way any of Christ’s ancient Church approached sinful humanity’s need for grace. The apostles and Gospel authors understood well that some sins are clearly graver than others. For instance, John gives us an insight into how to navigate our way when looking at our own brokenness:
If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal (1 John 5:16-17).
The Latin here for a mortal sin is mortalis, and the great Christian Tradition has named the contrary to that scriptural warrant venialis, a common word meaning “not deadly” or even “pardonable,” that which is much lighter than mortalis. As such, the distinction between mortal and venial sin is not some medieval invention but a 2,000-year-old apostolic warrant by which Christ inspires us to take note of our sins and find the appropriate response in Him.”