Category Archives: Protestantism

Penal substitutionary/vicarious atonement


-Crucifixion, Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-11), Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena, please click on the image for greater detail


-by Trent Horn

“Some Protestants argue for justification by faith alone by appealing to 2 Corinthians 5:21, which says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Protestant pastor John MacArthur even calls this verse the “heart of the gospel” when it comes to belief in sola fide, or justification by faith alone.

On the face of it, this doesn’t sound like it has much to do with us needing only to make an act of faith in Jesus in order to be saved. But Protestant apologists like MacArthur will say our salvation comes not from anything we do, but from the simple recognition that Jesus has already done everything that is necessary to rid us from sin. Through an act of faith, God “swaps” our sins for Christ’s righteousness, and that is why we can spend eternity with him. Jesus doesn’t literally become a sinner, but he is literally punished for our sins because now he has them.

When the Father sees the Son on the cross, he sees our sins and pours out his wrath upon the Son. But when the swap happens and God looks at us, he doesn’t see our sins anymore; he just sees Christ’s righteousness. Think of it as a theological Freaky Friday.

What’s important to remember is that our own righteousness hasn’t changed. Instead, God has covered our sins with Christ’s righteousness. Martin Luther is believed to have compared this to how dung heaps in the countryside would be covered with pure white snow. The dung heap remains, but it is no longer seen.

But this is not how 2 Corinthians 5:21 was traditionally understood throughout Church history.

Several Church fathers said this verse was an allusion to coming in the likeness of sinful flesh, or just the Incarnation in general, and has nothing to do with imputation of sin. St. Augustine said, “Therefore having no sin of his own; nevertheless, on account of the likeness of sinful flesh in which he came, he was called sin, that he might be sacrificed to wash away sin.” Even John Calvin used this verse in this way. When he was defending the importance of Christ’s humanity in the atonement, he wrote the following:

Although Christ could neither purify our souls by his own blood, nor appease the Father by his sacrifice, nor acquit us from the charge of guilt, nor, in short, perform the office of priest, unless he had been very God, because no human ability was equal to such a burden, it is however certain, that he performed all these things in his human nature. . . . Righteousness was manifested to us in his flesh. . . . He places the fountain of righteousness entirely in the incarnation of Christ[:] “He has made him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”

The point is not that Christ has become our sins, but that Christ has offered himself for humanity by taking on a human body. This corresponds to Romans 8:3, which says, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.”

Another interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21 is that “made him to be sin” means “made him to be a sin offering.” The Greek word for sin in this passage can also mean “sin offering,” or what is sacrificed to take away sin. Another place where we find it is Hebrews 10:6, which quotes Psalm 40, which refers to sacrifices. It literally says in Greek: “Burnt offering and for sin you have not delighted in,” so most translators render “sin” in this passage “sin offering” because that makes the most sense of the context.

It’s reasonable to conclude that the same is true of 2 Corinthians 5:21 because Paul makes it clear Christ himself is a paschal sacrifice. He says in 1 Corinthians 5:7, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed.”

So, to summarize, 2 Corinthians 5:21 does not refute the Catholic understanding of Christ’s atoning death. Moreover, it’s perfectly compatible with the Catholic view of Christ offering himself as a sacrifice that pays the debt incurred by all the sins ever committed. It is then up to each individual to freely choose to allow God to apply the effects of that sacrifice to his soul. This includes being baptized and being initially saved, and then living a life of obedience to God and not throwing away the value of Christ’s sacrifice. That’s why Hebrews 10:26-27 says, “For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment.”

We should take heart that Christ doesn’t just legally expunge our sinful deeds from a ledger, but transforms us as we receive his righteousness. 2 Corinthians 5:17 even says, “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”


-by Allison Low, Allison Tobola Low is a lifelong Catholic, passionate for sharing Christ and the Catholic faith with others. She works full time as a physician in Tyler, Texas, and also received a Master’s degree in Theology from the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO. Allison finds time to teach and share the Catholic faith every opportunity she can find, including being a catechist for Adult Faith Formation and RCIA at her local parish. Allison enjoys giving talks in parishes on a variety of faith-related topics and is also a regional leader for St. Paul Street Evangelization. Her website is www.pillarandfoundation.com where you can find short simple Catholic videos she creates (that are especially for children/young adults).

“Discussing theology with our Protestant brothers and sisters is often interesting, but it can also be quite frustrating.

For instance, many Protestants, particularly those from the Reformed traditions, passionately and firmly hold to the doctrine of penal substitution. This doctrine holds that, on the cross, Jesus was taking the place of all of mankind and was punished by God the Father. In so doing He endured the wrath and punishment we deserve because of our sins.

Reformed vs. Catholic Theology

Of course, as Catholics, while we hold that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice, we do agree that it was substitutionary. But we firmly reject the idea of penal substitution. Since Jesus is God and God is perfect, how can God punish God? And assuming Jesus could somehow separate Himself from God, why would God punish a holy and pure being for our sins? Such an idea is entirely incompatible with our understanding of God.

In dialogue with Protestant friends, I have found that the essential elements in their belief in penal substitution seem to be that due to God’s wrath and perfect justice, Jesus had to be punished in order for us to be forgiven – there was no other option. But this doctrine is based on misunderstandings of the Incarnation, God’s “wrath,” and God’s perfect justice.

Why have you forsaken me?

When Jesus is on the cross, he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46). Those holding the doctrine of penal substitution, claim this shows that God the Father abandoned Jesus on the cross and the relationship between God the Father and God the Son was severed. Additionally, quoting 2 Corinthians 5:21, they believe Jesus literally took on our sins. Referencing Romans 1:18, they say that God’s wrath was poured out onto Jesus. So at this moment on the cross, Jesus is taking our place and enduring the punishment we deserve for our sins.

But if we examine our understanding of the Trinity and of the Incarnation, we can see that this view of penal substitution is incompatible with these doctrines.

In Light of the Trinity and the Incarnation

First of all, God has revealed that He is a Triune God. The three Divine Persons of the Trinity are God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Each Divine Person is distinct but not separate. Each divine person fully possesses the divine nature with the only difference being the relationship of the Persons. In the Godhead, these three Persons have no beginning and no end, and they are in eternal communion with each other.

In the Incarnation, God the Son, the Second Divine Person, while still fully possessing a divine nature, united himself to a human nature. This hypostatic union is real and not merely accidental. The two natures in Christ are distinct without commingling and Jesus’ divinity remained unchanged. Jesus was not simply a man with the indwelling of God but was both true God and true man.

Both Human and Divine

Therefore, when Jesus walked the shore of Galilee, spoke to the Apostles and was scourged at the pillar, it was God the Son who did these things. These experiences were possible because of his human nature. And when Jesus gave sight to the blind, calmed the storms and raised the dead, it was God the Son who did these things, because while having a human nature, He was still God the Son who fully possessed the divine nature. And when Jesus died on the cross, the Second Divine Person suffered in the flesh and was crucified in the flesh.

So the Passion was endured by God the Son on account of the human nature He assumed while His divine nature remained unchanged. (See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, 46, a. 12.)

With the doctrine of penal substitution, however, it is held that God the Father ruptured His relationship with God the Son on the cross in order to punish Jesus. But this element of the doctrine is contrary to the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity. If it were possible for God the Son to be separated from God the Father, even for a moment, then he would not and could not be God.

Did Jesus literally take on our sins?

When we acknowledge that Jesus is God the Son, we also must reject any interpretation of Scripture that suggests that Jesus literally took all our sins onto himself. We can confidently do this because of the nature of sin.

Simply put, sin is an offense against God. When we sin, we damage our relationship with God to varying degrees. By committing grave sins, we completely sever our relationship with God. We are no longer in communion with God.

If Jesus literally took on all our mortal sins, we would have a situation where Jesus would be at enmity with God. But, as already pointed out, this is not possible because Jesus is God the Son.

Acknowledging what we know about the Triune God, the Incarnation, and sin, we must then examine Scriptures in their entirety along with all the revealed doctrines. Looking at Scriptures in their entirety requires us to reject any interpretations suggesting God the Son in any way lost communion with God the Father or was at enmity with the Father.

How is God’s wrath satisfied?

Protestants will often ask, however, if Catholics do not hold that God the Father poured out the wrath we deserve onto Jesus, then how is God’s wrath satisfied? They will also point to numerous texts in the New Testament referring to God’s wrath, such as John 3:36; Romans 1:18 and 12:19; and Ephesians 5:6. But the key to understanding is in properly interpreting what Scripture is teaching us.

Anger (wrath) is a passion within human beings. God, however, is immutable and impassible. He does not have feelings as we know them. Nor does He experience passions. God also does not have a temper. And our sins do not provoke revenge in God. God is infinitely perfect, merciful, loving and just in all he does, so we must see what we call His anger in light of this truth.

Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, tells us that at times Scripture speaks of things in reference to God metaphorically. This is seen particularly when certain human passions are predicated of the Godhead. Aquinas says:

Hence a thing that is in us a sign of some passion, is signified metaphorically in God under the name of that passion. Thus with us it is usual for an angry man to punish, so that punishment becomes an expression of anger. Therefore, punishment itself is signified by the word anger, when anger is attributed to God.

In order to help us better understand God, Scripture uses metaphors, but we must take care to not hold that God can change, or that our actions cause emotions or passions to flare up in God.

Punishment as an expression of Wrath

Even though God does not experience the passion of anger, we say that we experience the consequences of sin as expressions of His “wrath.” But this must be understood metaphorically. When we sin, we rebel against God and turn away from him. God allows us to endure the consequences in this life and in the next. Those consequences include disorder, disharmony, pain, suffering and physical death. But these consequences/punishments are not the result of God actively willing torments. Rather, because of His love for us, God has given us a free will to make choices. If we choose to separate ourselves from Him who is Goodness itself and Love itself, then the inevitable outcome will be that we deprive ourselves of His goodness and love.

Another way of understanding “God’s wrath” is to recognize that our disobedience and rebellion do not causes any change in God by nature of who He is. Rather, we are changed by sin. If we reject God’s love and rebel, our hearts are hardened. Lacking God’s love, one will be tormented by the thought of God’s judgment and, as a result, will experience “God’s wrath.” But in both scenarios, what has changed is not God but us.

God’s Justice

The final point to keep in mind in regard to God’s nature is related to His perfect justice. Those holding to the doctrine of penal substitution believe that since the consequences of our sins are suffering, death and the pains of hell, justice requires Jesus to take our place and experiences these consequences for salvation to be possible.

But as posited earlier, how can God punish Jesus Christ who is completely innocent? It is also impossible to hold that God the Son could literally become a sinner in enmity with God. And it is at odds with justice that Jesus, perfectly pure, holy and innocent, would have to be tortured and crucified as punishment for what He did not do.

Christ’s Sacrificial Offering of Love
Jesus’ entire life was one of love, obedience and self-emptying (Philippians 2:8). He accepted his death on the cross freely, willing laying down his life for each one of us in love. Because of the Incarnation, God the Son performs a human act – one of freely offering Himself and sacrificing His life. He does this in our place. And being God, his offering is one of infinite value. This act of humility, obedience and love was pleasing to God. And Christ’s sacrifice was of infinite merit for us.

As Aquinas writes:

. . . by suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity from which he suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of his life which he laid down in atonement, for it was the life of one who was God and man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion and the greatness of the grief endured…And therefore, Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race…” (Summa, III, 48, a. 2).


-by Dr. Bryan Cross, PhD, was raised in the Pentecostal tradition, then became Reformed shortly after completing his bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology at the University of Michigan. He then received an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary. In 2003 he and his wife and two daughters became Anglican. On October 8, 2006, he and his family were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He has previously taught at Saint Louis University, Lindenwood University, and Kenrick-Glennon Seminary. He is presently an assistant professor of philosophy at Mount Mercy University. His personal blog is “Principium Unitatis.”

“The Reformed conception of the Atonement is that in Christ’s Passion and death, God the Father poured out all of His wrath for the sins of the elect, on Christ the Son. In Christ’s Passion and death, Christ bore the punishment of the Father’s wrath that the elect deserved for their sins. In the Reformed conception, this is what it means to bear the curse, to bear the Father’s wrath for sin. In Reformed thought, at Christ’s Passion and death, God the Father transferred all the sins (past, present, and future) of all the elect onto His Son. Then God the Father hated, cursed and damned His Son, who was evil in the Father’s sight on account of all the sins of the elect being concentrated in the Son. (R.C. Sproul says that the 56th minute of his talk here.) In doing so, God the Father punished Christ for all the sins of the elect of all time. Because the sins of the elect are now paid for, through Christ’s having already been punished for them, the elect can never be punished for any sin they might ever commit, because every sin they might ever commit has already been punished. For that reason Reformed theology is required to maintain that Christ died only for the elect. Otherwise, if Christ died for everyone, this would entail universal salvation, since it would entail that all the sins of all people, have already been punished, and therefore cannot be punished again.

The Catholic conception of Christ’s Passion and Atonement is that Christ offered Himself up in self-sacrificial love to the Father, obedient even unto death, for the sins of all men. In His human will He offered to God a sacrifice of love that was more pleasing to the Father than the combined sins of all men of all time are displeasing to Him, and thus made satisfaction for our sins. The Father was never angry with Christ. Nor did the Father pour out His wrath on the Son. The Passion is Christ’s greatest act of love, the greatest revelation of the heart of God, and the glory of Christ.(1) So when Christ was on the cross, God the Father was not pouring out His wrath on His Son; in Christ’s act of self-sacrifice in loving obedience to the Father, Christ was most lovable in the eyes of the Father. Rather, in Christ’s Passion we humans poured out our enmity with God on Christ, by what we did to Him in His body and soul. And He freely chose to let us do all this to Him. Deeper still, even our present sins contributed to His suffering, because He, in solidarity with us, grieved over all the sins of the world, not just the sins of the elect. Hence, St. Francis of Assisi said, “Nor did demons crucify Him; it is you who have crucified Him and crucify Him still, when you delight in your vices and sins.”(2) The Passion is a revelation of the love of God, not the wrath of God. The fundamental difference can be depicted simply in the following drawing(3):

One problem with the Reformed conception is that it would either make the Father guilty of the greatest evil of all time (pouring out the punishment for all sin on an innocent man, knowing that he is innocent), or if Christ were truly guilty and deserved all that punishment, then His suffering would be of no benefit to us.

A second problem with the Reformed conception is the following dilemma. If God the Father was pouring out His wrath on the Second Person of the Trinity, then God was divided against Himself, God the Father hating His own Word. God could hate the Son only if the Son were another being, that is, if polytheism or Arianism were true. But if God loved the Son, then it must be another person (besides the Son) whom God was hating during Christ’s Passion. And hence that entails Nestorianism, i.e. that Christ was two persons, one divine and the other human. He loved the divine Son but hated the human Jesus. Hence the Reformed conception conflicts with the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. The Father and the Son cannot be at odds. If Christ loves men, then so does the Father. Or, if the Father has wrath for men, then so does Christ. And, if the Father has wrath for the Son, then the Son must have no less wrath for Himself.

St. Thomas Aquinas says:

Christ as God delivered Himself up to death by the same will and action as that by which the Father delivered Him up; but as man He gave Himself up by a will inspired of the Father. Consequently there is no contrariety in the Father delivering Him up and in Christ delivering Himself up. (4)

There St. Thomas explains that there is no contrariety between the Father and the Son during Christ’s Passion, no loss of love from the Father to the Son or the Son to the Father. The Father wholly and entirely loved His Son during the entire Passion. By one and the same divine will and action, the Father allowed the Son to be crucified and the Son allowed Himself to be crucified.(5)

One question, from the Reformed point of view, is: How then were our sins paid for, if Christ was not punished by the Father? Christ made atonement for the sins of all men by offering to God a sacrifice of love that was more pleasing to the Father than the combined sins of all men of all time are displeasing to Him. Hence through the cross Christ merited grace for the salvation of all men. Those who refuse His grace do not do so because Christ did not die for them or did not win sufficient grace for them on the cross, but because of their own free choice.

A second question, from the Reformed point of view, is this: St. Paul tells us, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us–for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”(6) How should we understand the curse, if God the Father is not pouring out His wrath on His Son? St. Augustine explains clearly in his reply to Faustus, that what it means that Christ was cursed is that Christ suffered death.(7) Christ took our sin in the sense that He willingly bore its consequence, namely, death, because death is the consequence of sin and its curse. Death is not natural. But Christ took the likeness of sinful man in that He subjected Himself to death, even death on a cross for our sake.

A third question, from the Reformed point of view, is this: How then should we understand Isaiah 53? What does it mean that:

Surely he hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows: and we have thought him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our sins: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, every one hath turned aside into his own way: and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. .. And the Lord was pleased to bruise him in infirmity: if he shall lay down his life for sin, he shall see a long-lived seed, and the will of the Lord shall be prosperous in his hand. Because his soul hath laboured, he shall see and be filled: by his knowledge shall this my just servant justify many, and he shall bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53;4-6, 10-11)

This means that Christ carried in His body the sufferings that sin has brought into the world, and that Christ suffered in His soul over all the sins of the world, and their offense against God. He bore our iniquities not in the sense that God punished Him for what we did, but in the sense that He grieved over them all, in solidarity with us. That is what it means that the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He suffered the consequences of sin (i.e. suffering, grief, death), by entering into solidarity with us, entering into our fallen world, and allowing Himself to suffer in it with us, for us, even by our hands.(8)

  1. This is why Christ retained His five wounds in His resurrected body. And this is why Catholics show Christ on the cross, in the crucifix, because this is Christ’s glory. We, with St. Paul, glory in Christ crucified. (1 Cor 1:23-24) [↩]
  2. CCC 598 [↩]
  3. Of course in the Reformed system Christ also self-sacrificially loves the Father. But what effects propitiation in the Reformed system is the complete pouring out of God’s wrath upon the Son. In Catholic doctrine, by contrast, God does not pour out His wrath for our sins onto His Son, and what effects propitiation is Christ’s positive gift of love to the Father. Hence the illustration depicts what effects propitiation in the respective theological systems. It is not intended to be an exhaustive illustration of all that is going on during Christ’s Passion. [↩]
  4. See ST III Q.47 a.3 ad 2 [↩]
  5. For a fuller explanation of what Christ did for us through His Passion, according to St Thomas Aquinas, see “Aquinas and Trent 6.” [↩]
  6. Gal 3:13 [↩]
  7. Contra Faustus, XIV. [↩]
  8. For additional reading on the Catholic understanding of the atonement see Philippe De La Trinitaté’s What is Redemption?, and Jean Rivière’s The Doctrine of the Atonement Volume 1 and Volume 2. [↩]

Love,
Matthew

Anglican blasphemy


-please click on the image for greater detail

(I went to Anglican pre-school. No harm. No foul. This was 1970, though.)

-by Michael E. Daniel, a convert from Anglicanism, is schoolmaster at an independent school in Melbourne, Australia, where he lives with his wife, Helen, and baby daughter, Lydia.

“I was born in the late 1960s and raised in the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church, being a member of the Sunday school and later the Church choir. Soon after I joined the choir I developed an interest in both Christianity and history. In addition to Bible story books, we had some old British history readers at home, and I devoured these. My favorite period of history was that of the Tudor monarchs, and this brought me into touch with the Reformation. These histories presented the standard Protestant apologetic, anti-Catholic line, and for the first time I became aware of the differences between Catholics and Protestants.

My preparation for confirmation at age eleven was the first systematic catechesis Christian doctrine and ethics I received. Two of the lessons stand out in my mind. The first was on the “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.” The Anglican church, it was explained, was a branch of the Catholic Church, since it accepted the three creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian), had the two sacraments (baptism and Eucharist), and retained the threefold order of ministry—bishops, priests, and deacons.

The other lesson was on the Eucharist, which we studied as we went through the Anglican catechism in the Book of Common Prayer. The vicar told us that although the elements still remained bread and wine, the faithful received Christ spiritually and grew in relationship with him. Transubstantiation was denied. I accepted this, but I remember feeling not entirely comfortable with it. Did not Christ say, “This is my body …This is my blood”? The explanation that this was symbolic language was not convincing.

Secondary education at an Anglican grammar school meant taking a course called Divinity. Here I first encountered theological liberalism. One of the masters, for example, questioned the Virgin Birth, suggesting Christ was probably the son of a Roman soldier. The liberal masters probably felt they were making Christianity reasonable to the modern mind, saving it from fundamentalism. Instead, it had the opposite effect: My classmates seemed to become even more contemptuous of Christian beliefs.

The religion preached by the school chaplain, an evangelical Anglican clergyman, was more traditional. His preaching and lessons included standard anti-Catholic rhetoric. So convinced was I that Rome was wrong that I remember being impressed with his concept of the “unity of Protestantism”: although there were many Protestant churches, the differences between them were slight; they were right on the essentials, namely, “the Bible alone” and “justification by faith alone.”

This instruction complemented what I was encountering in my evangelical Anglican youth group. The leaders reinforced my belief in “the Bible alone” as the rule of faith, for without this rule, Christians could invent any beliefs as the Catholics had done. They also emphasized “faith alone,” but, as I studied Scripture, that concept never gelled completely, since passages from James didn’t fit the matrix.

Sometime when I was in form five, a school friend who had become interested in Anglo-Catholicism took me to high mass at a leading Anglo-Catholic church. Anglo-Catholics are those members of the Anglican/Episcopalian church whose devotional life and beliefs are similar in many respects to Catholics. For example, they celebrate the Eucharist as if it were the Mass, with vestments, incense, and elevation of the host; they have devotions to Mary, benediction, confession et cetera. I was awestruck by the beauty, reverence, and transcendence of the liturgy.

Around the same time a new leader joined the youth group who was particularly anti-Catholic. He claimed Catholics were not even Christian and had to be rescued from Catholicism. Ironically, my Anglican father had chosen a practicing Catholic as my godfather. He had a good understanding of the Catholic faith and was able to answer my questions. I assumed Catholics were wrong, but all I knew about them was what Protestants had told me and what I had read in Protestant literature. Why not allow Catholics to speak for themselves? Their literature should not be too hard to disprove. What a shock I was in for.

Sneaking into a Catholic church, hoping I would not be seen, I purchased a few inexpensive pamphlets that were eye-openers. Catholics could actually present reasoned and intelligent arguments to defend their beliefs, and their arguments based on Scripture were just as compelling, if not more so, than Protestantism. I went back, got more pamphlets, and read them eagerly. Many of the ideas I encountered I discussed with my godfather, and his explanations underscored how logical and reasonable Catholic teaching seemed to be.

I gradually came to accept on an intellectual level most of the Church’s teachings, since they could be proven by Scripture. I was impressed by historical arguments, particularly by analyses of the writings of Church Fathers that supported Catholic teaching (to the detriment of Protestant interpretations). I realized that Catholics, contrary to what some Protestant literature stated, did not believe they could work their way to heaven or earn their salvation. This heresy, called Pelagianism, was condemned by Augustine and the Council of Trent. Both Catholics and Protestants believe that we are saved by grace alone; the differences were primarily in the relationship between faith and works (actions).

Justification by faith alone did not stand up to a comprehensive analysis of Scripture. It had been taught by no one before Luther, who added the word alone to Romans 1: 17, which should read, “The just shall live by faith.” Indeed, as has been pointed out in this magazine many times, the only time the phrase “by faith alone” appears in the Bible, it opposes the Protestant doctrine: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24, emphasis added).

The other important difference was that Catholics believe that grace is imparted rather than imputed-that is, the sinner is made righteous rather than merely being declared righteous. For Luther, man always remains sinful; when he was saved, Christ, as it were, covered the sinner with his cloak to make him appear righteous. Not only is the Catholic vision of salvation more merciful, it also explains the underpinning for beliefs such as purgatory, since most people die with imperfections on their soul that need to be purged before they stand before God, since nothing unclean or defiled can stand before the throne of God.

One text that kept coming back to me was Christ’s promise that the Holy Spirit would lead his disciples into all truth (cf. John 14:26). I wanted to find Christian truth, but where was it to be found? At the Last Supper, Christ prayed to the Father that his disciples should be one. Protestantism, through its insistence on the Bible alone as the rule of faith and private interpretation, in the belief that scriptural truths are self-obvious, had resulted in disunity. How could one logically talk about the unity of Protestantism when there are myriads of denominations, each of which claims it has the correct interpretation of the Bible?

Some Protestants attempt to argue that the Church, the Body of Christ, is an invisible entity, congregations being mere gatherings of like-minded believers. However, behind the New Testament writings was the presumption that the Church was a visible structure that had the power to teach. The visible nature of the Church and necessity of membership became increasingly clearer as I read early Christian writings.

As I accepted Catholic teachings, my devotional life changed. I began to receive Communion on the tongue (to the horror of the school chaplain) and go to confession. The impact of the rosary on my faith development cannot be underestimated. The hardest doctrines to accept were the Marian ones. I did not pray the glorious mysteries of the Assumption and the Coronation until I reflected on Revelation 12:1: “And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” If Mary is in heaven, I reasoned, then how did she get there unless she was assumed? Similarly, what woman other than a queen wears a crown?

As an Anglo-Catholic, I believed in the “branch theory,” which holds that the Catholic Church comprises three main branches: Rome, Canterbury, and Byzantium. The issue of women’s ordination, which the Anglican church was confronting, was a catalyst for me to re-examine the Anglican church’s claims. It was a departure from the constant practice of Christendom. Christ, at the Last Supper, had ordained only men.

Anglicans are by no means united on this issue. Although the Episcopal church prides itself on being inclusive, embracing a range of opinions and views, this impacts its unity severely. The situation could emerge in which one Anglican diocese had women priests when a neighboring one refused to recognize the validity of the orders of women priests. Furthermore, by ordaining women without the permission and agreement of the other two branches of the “Catholic Church,” the Anglican church was undermining its claim to be a branch of the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.

At the end of secondary education I joined an Anglo-Catholic parish. Inspired by my love of history and interest in the ancient world, I enrolled in Latin and ancient history at university. In my second year, I studied late Roman history and this, together with other private reading, raised the historical faith issues, particularly through my encounter with the Church Fathers.

On virtually every issue they confirmed the Catholic beliefs that I held as an Anglo-Catholic, particularly regarding the Eucharist, the Mass, purgatory, the intercession of saints, et cetera. For example, when writing to the Smyrneans, Ignatius of Antioch stated that Docetists, a group of heretics who denied the Incarnation, refused to receive the Eucharist because they failed to recognize it as the body of Christ. The formal definition of transubstantiation, a definition rejected by the Anglican Church, was reflected in Ignatius’s teaching. So who was right: Ignatius-a younger contemporary of the apostles who wrote well before the formulation of the canon of Scripture-or the Anglican Church?

As an Anglo-Catholic I held beliefs that were a contradiction to those of my Evangelical past and the contents of the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles, which, together with the three creeds, are the doctrinal standards of Anglicanism. For example, Article XXXI states, “Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in which it was commonly said that the priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits.” Or Article XXII: “The Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardon, Worshiping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also the invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.” Article XXVIII forbids elevation of the elements at the consecration, procession, and benediction with the Blessed Sacrament-standard practices in my Anglo-Catholic parish!

At some stage while still an Anglican I had ditched sola scriptura or “the Bible alone” theory, since nowhere in the Bible does it state that the Bible is the only rule of faith. Similarly, the Bible grew out of the Church, whose members wrote the books of the New Testament and who compiled it. The canon of the New Testament started to take shape only in the second half of the second century and reached its final form at the end of the fourth. By this stage the Church clearly taught Catholic doctrines on a range of issues, such as the Real Presence, purgatory, and the Mass as a sacrifice. I f the Church was wrong on these issues, what guarantee was there that it had not erred in the formulation of the canon of Scripture?

My study of history and in discussions with legal student friends highlighted the necessity for any legal text to have an interpreter. St Peter’s second epistle itself contained warnings about misinterpreting Scripture and difficulties with interpreting some of Paul’s sayings. (cf. 2 Peter 3:15-16). Who was to be Scripture’s interpreter? Private judgement had produced a plethora of Protestant sects, and the Anglican Church could not arrive at a consistent position on issues such as women’s ordination.

But what powers did various churches have to settle doctrinal disputes that threatened their stability? How were Christ’s promises to be with his Church through all ages to be fulfilled? The Protestant churches simply splintered. By contrast, with Church councils and particularly with papal infallibility, the Catholic Church contained what could be called an emergency executive power. Reading early Church history, it became more and more apparent that the bishop of Rome enjoyed a special status. Irenaeus, writing at the end of the second century stated of the see of Rome, “For it is a matter of necessity that every church should agree with this church, on account of its preeminent authority.”

I read further only to realize that the concept of development of doctrine was consistent with the definition of the hypostatic union (the belief that Christ is one person with two natures, a human nature and a divine nature) at the Council of Chalcedon, which employed Greek philosophical ideas to underpin the definition. If Anglicans accepted development of doctrine up to A.D. 451 and the first four Church Councils, why not accept further development of doctrine and more Church councils? How would one expect the Church settle further doctrinal disputes?

Furthermore, in reading about Chalcedon, my attention was drawn to the role of Leo I at this council. In his famous Tome of Leo in 449 AD he stated correct belief concerning the person of Christ and his two natures. The Council fathers voted to accept the definition he offered with the accolade, “Peter has spoken through Leo.” The realization then dawned on me: If the Church accepted the leadership and role of the pope and accepted that Peter’s office and prerogatives were passed down to his successors, and if the Anglican church and other Protestant bodies accept the first four Councils, then why do they not accept the papacy?

After years of study, prayer, and reading I came to know, without any doubt, that the Catholic Church was the church founded by Christ. It alone could claim continuity with the upper room at Pentecost. I sought out a priest for instruction and three months later was received into the Church.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Biblical anarchy


-by Trent Horn

“Different Protestants have different definitions of sola scriptura, but at its core, every definition makes Scripture a Christian’s highest authority. In doing so, it leaves no room for a divinely appointed Magisterium or Church that can authoritatively declare what Christians are obliged or forbidden to believe. This is evident in things like the 1978 Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, a popular statement among conservative Evangelicals, which says, “We deny that Church creeds, councils, or declarations have authority greater than scripture or equal to the authority of the Bible.”

But in practice, it is the authority of a person’s interpretation of the Bible that becomes the highest authority. This leads to what Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid called “a blueprint for anarchy.”

You get people like Matthew Vines, who earnestly contends that the Bible is divinely inspired and, when properly interpreted, does not condemn modern same-sex relationships. Or you get people like Brandan Robertson, who reject fundamental tenets of Christianity by saying Jesus committed the sin of racism when speaking to the Syrophoenician woman. And this isn’t just Robertson, either, as there are denominations like Christadelphians who believe that Jesus had a “sin nature.”

At this point, a Protestant could say: no matter how clearly you state things, you’re always going to have unsaved people twisting Scripture and misinterpreting it. When it comes to the claim that Jesus sinned, only a degenerate person trapped in the darkness of sin could fail to apply Hebrews 4:15’s clear teaching to the question: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning.”

Sola scriptura is defensible, these apologists claim, because incorrect interpretations of Scripture can always be refuted by the correct interpretation true Christians can always locate within the pages of holy writ. But this pushes the problem back and assumes that everyone will nicely go along with a uniform understanding of what Scripture even is.

For example, how could you respond to someone defending Jesus’ sinfulness who says he doesn’t believe that Hebrews is Scripture? After all, the letter is anonymous, and although it has been traditionally attributed to Paul, several Church fathers questioned its canonicity. The early Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea said, “Some have rejected the Epistle to the Hebrews, saying that it is disputed by the church of Rome, on the ground that it was not written by Paul.”

Even if Paul did write it, why believe that Paul’s words were divinely inspired? Pastor Robertson says there’s reason to doubt that, given that Paul was never one of Jesus’ disciples during Jesus’ earthly ministry. Some Christians follow only the words of Jesus (similar to Bill Johnson’s Just Jesus movement). Others, like hyper-dispensationalists, take the opposite extreme and think Christians are bound to accept only some of Acts and the letters Paul wrote while he was in prison.

Without a Magisterium to appeal to, saying these views contradict Scripture assumes what the Protestant apologist is trying to prove—namely, which writings constitute Sacred Scripture. But because the Church has an authoritative teaching office, there is a way to set objective “ground rules” when it comes to understanding the meaning of Scripture.

A Protestant might offer three objections to this critique of sola scriptura. First, if the meaning of Scripture has been entrusted to the Church, then why hasn’t the pope or an ecumenical council infallibly defined every passage of Scripture and put all controversies to rest? For the same reason Protestants don’t have a divinely inspired biblical commentary: God chose not give this kind of revelation to the Church.

The Church hands on the Deposit of Faith, and, although a handful of biblical passages have been infallibly defined (such as John 3:5’s reference to water baptism), the Church allows biblical scholars a fair amount of latitude more generally when it comes to interpreting the Bible. The Church’s authority primarily presents itself in biblical interpretation by setting “guardrails” that make certain interpretations off-limits. For example, scholars might find new insights into the cultural interaction that took place between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, but they are prohibited from saying the interaction proves that Jesus is not fully divine or not free from sin.

Second, a Protestant might say the Catholic is kicking the can down the road: if there is “anarchy” when it comes to interpreting what the Bible says, then won’t a similar anarchy occur when people try to figure out what Church documents mean? In response, I would say this is a good reply to someone who says private interpretation can never be a part of the life of a Christian. That’s too narrow of a view, and the Catechism even says Christians must obey the dictates of a properly formed conscience (1790).

However, a more defensible position would be that interpretive clarity is at least far more feasible (or may even only be possible) through a living Magisterium. That’s because a Church that persists through history can teach doctrine through deliberate, repetitive acts that account for misunderstandings that arise in each generation. The static words of Scripture cannot articulate themselves anew for every generation.

Finally, a Protestant might point to the dissenters within the Catholic Church as evidence that having a Magisterium does not eliminate the problem of heresy. What about all the priests and lay people who argue for expanding the definition of marriage and the ordination of women? What good is a magisterium if it doesn’t prevent these voices from rising up in the Church?

Well, even when God directly spoke to his chosen people or his faithful angels, people rebelled. That’s the cost of giving creatures free will. But at least Catholic dissenters usually admit that what they’re peddling directly contradicts what the Church teaches. They may hope Catholic teaching will change in their favor, but they begrudgingly allow that their heresy is not Catholic teaching. A Protestant, on the other hand, who dissents from “traditional Christianity” can always say what he believes is what the highest authority in Protestantism has always taught, which others have simply failed to recognize.

So while dissenters and heretics will always afflict the body of Christ, Christ chose to protect his Church not by confining divine revelation to Scripture alone, but by instituting a Church. Jesus told his apostles, “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16). The same principle animates the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Bible is NEVER sola


Oral Torah = Tradition


-by Douglas Beaumont, Catholic Answers, Dr. Beaumont earned a Ph.D. in theology from North-West University and an M.A. in apologetics from Southern Evangelical Seminary, where he taught for many years before coming into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2014.

Most Protestants have no problem with God’s Revelation taking more than one form

It must be recognized that most Protestants do not have a problem with the idea that God’s revelation can take more than one form.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes, “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (1:19–20).

Paul seems to be echoing the Old Testament book of Wisdom, which says, “For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (13:5). All of this agrees with the psalmist, who declared that “the heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1).

Natural and Supernatural Revelation

Catholics and Protestants agree that God makes Himself known in ways outside of Scripture

So we see in Scripture itself that God reveals Himself (clearly and to all people) through his creation, apart from Scripture. Theologians call this kind of revelation natural (because it comes through nature) or general (because it is given to all people).

In contrast, revelation that is given by prophetic utterances or recorded in inspired writings is called supernatural (because it is direct communication from God) or special (because it is not available to all people without qualification).

Catholics and Protestants agree that these two modes of revelation are both legitimate and authoritative—at least in theory. In its two millennia on earth, the Catholic Church has developed many careful distinctions, one of them being to subdivide supernatural, public revelations into those originally written (Sacred Scripture) and unwritten (Sacred Tradition).

Catholics emphasize that all truth is “God’s truth” and therefore that no revelation can truly contradict another, whereas Protestants elevate the written form above the others. But Protestants will agree that God can and does reveal himself in ways outside the pages of the Bible.

In Principle Protestants Agree: God’s revelation comes to us in more than the written form.

The Importance of Interpretation

Language is a set of signs pointing to things in reality

An important thing to note here is that regardless of their source, written words need to be interpreted. Language is a set of signs (whether oral or written) pointing to things in reality. Therefore, our knowledge of reality will determine our interpretation of words.

When I say or write the word dog, English speakers will know what I mean because we have agreed that this word refers to the animal we all recognize as a dog.

That’s pretty straightforward, but language is not always that easy to understand. Dog can also refer to a person (usually, but not always, in a negative way) or it can be a word to modify a type of day in summer or express how tired I am. Aside from the challenge of words having multiple definitions, sometimes the same meaning is applied to distinct things in very specific ways.

For example, if I say, “My wife is a peach,” no one would suspect that I had married a fruit! Instinctively, they would compare what they know about peaches and women to what I had said and infer my actual meaning (“My wife is sweet”).

This is as true of the Bible as anything else. For example, the words of Scripture describe our planet as being circular (Isa. 40:22) and as having corners (Rev. 7:1). Because something cannot be both circular and cornered, it seems clear that one of these verses was meant to be taken metaphorically. But which one? One could argue from genre types or try to dig into the original Hebrew and Greek, but in our age it is much easier to consult natural revelation (simply look at the planet!).

Catholicism Affirms: God’s public, special revelation has come to us in written and unwritten form.

Love & His will, which is perfect,
Matthew

Christian accord, Acts 1:14 – Salvation

“All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14).


-by Douglas Beaumont, Catholic Answers, Dr. Beaumont earned a Ph.D. in theology from North-West University and an M.A. in apologetics from Southern Evangelical Seminary, where he taught for many years before coming into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2014.

Is “Faith Alone” enough?

The Protestant Reformation was launched when a Catholic priest named Martin Luther thought he’d discovered something in the Bible that the Church had been missing for centuries. That discovery was salvation by faith alone—that is, apart from doing good works. This core Reformation doctrine of sola fide is a major dividing line between Catholics and Protestants.

Just like sola scriptura, this doctrine ends up dividing Protestants from each other just as much (and sometimes even more) as it divides them from Catholics. Over the years, “faith alone” has come to mean different things to different Protestants.

There are some (known as Free Grace Protestants) who have taken the principle so far that they believe even apostates can be completely confident in their salvation. At the other end of the spectrum are legalistic or Fundamentalist groups that, while giving lip service to salvation by faith alone, nevertheless demand a severe lifestyle from their members.

Nor is the debate over salvation by faith alone limited to extreme fringe groups. In fact, it began in the sixteenth century and shows no signs of letting up in the twenty-first. A recent book from one of the most popular Evangelical publishers devoted over 300 pages to an academic debate between five scholars on the nature of justification (one was a Catholic)

And justification is only the beginning. Similar debate books have been written about sanctification, pluralism, eternal security, law and gospel, and other related topics. And so as we seek accord, we will look to see if the principles that allow Protestants who disagree over salvation nonetheless to identify with one another and to worship together might call for the embrace of Catholics as well.

Are You Saved?

Justification, Sanctification, and Glorification

Although Christians sometimes think of salvation in fairly simple terms (going to heaven instead of hell), anyone who spends much time thinking or talking about the subject will quickly discover that there are numerous shades of meaning.

Nearly all Christians, even those who speak of salvation as if it occurred whole and entire at a single point in time, with no potential to ever be lost, recognize that God’s work in people typically involves a process that is extended over time.

In the Evangelical tradition that I came from, we thought of salvation in three basic stages: 1) justification, which was the point at which someone received Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior and thus was guaranteed heaven, 2) sanctification, which was the process by which God transformed the individual’s life from one of sin to sainthood, and 3) glorification, which was the final, complete transformation into perfection that occurred once someone entered eternal life in heaven.

Stages of Salvation

Where we differ, where we agree

Although this threefold process is described differently among Protestant traditions, most affirm something like it. A critical feature of this theology is that during each stage, the causes of and effects on one’s salvation can differ. For example, whereas the initial stage of salvation (“ justification”) might be considered a one-way act of God based on faith alone, resulting in heaven or hell, the second stage (“sanctification”) may rely heavily on the actions of the individual and only affect one’s degree of reward or punishment.

The importance of these salvation “stages” is that although Protestants will often speak of salvation as a single moment in time with everlasting effects, most agree that there is more to the story. Sola fide, in most Protestant minds, refers only to one’s initial justification. This happens to coincide nicely with the Catholic view of baptism—it is entirely faith-based, distinct from a person’s works, and instantly brings us into a saving relationship with God.

For many Protestants, the parallels break down after that because the Church teaches that saving grace can be lost or increased via works (“faith working through love” per Galatians 5:6)—but there are Protestants who teach something similar to this as well. In the end, the differences some- times come down more to terminology and fine-grained distinctions than to entirely different salvation plans as is often believed.

Finding Common Ground

We often are not as far apart as we think

In Principle Protestants Agree: Salvation is in some sense a process involving various stages, each with different requirements and effects.

In Particular Catholicism Affirms: Salvation is an ongoing process with different requirements at different stages that can increase, decrease, eradicate, or regain God’s saving grace in our lives.”

Love, and Christian accord, harmony, peace, love, and deep, true affection,
Matthew

Calvin’s reprobation & free will


-The Doctrine of Predestination explained in a Question and Answer Format from a 1589/1594 Geneva Bible, please click on the image for greater clarity

In Christianity, the doctrine that God unilaterally predestines some persons to heaven and some to hell originated with St Augustine of Hippo during the Pelagian controversy in 412 AD. Exactly the time the Catholic Church stopped adopting the teachings of Augustine as doctrine.

Pelagius and his followers taught that people are not born with original sin and can choose to be good or evil. The controversy caused Augustine to radically reinterpret the teachings of the apostle Paul, arguing that faith is a free gift from God rather than something humans can choose. Noting that not all will hear or respond to God’s offered covenant, Augustine considered that “the more general care of God for the world becomes particularised in God’s care for the elect”. He explicitly defended God’s justice in sending newborn and stillborn babies to hell although they had no personal sin. (Limbo, merely a theological idea, not a doctrine, was a Catholic “we don’t know” answer.  Realizing the necessity of baptism for salvation, but also the innocence other than original sin, but no personal sin, seems out of line logically with God’s infinite mercy and love and also His infinite Justice.  Sending the personally innocent to Hell cannot be logical or just.  Truth cannot contradict truth.)

John Calvin taught the latter part of “double predestination” had leaving the remainder of humanity to receive eternal damnation for all their sins, even their original sin. Calvin wrote the foundational work on this topic, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1539), while living in Strasbourg after his expulsion from Geneva and consulting regularly with the Reformed theologian Martin Bucer. Calvin’s belief in the uncompromised “sovereignty of God” spawned his doctrines of providence and predestination. For the world, without providence it would be “unlivable”. For individuals, without predestination “no one would be saved”.

Calvin did not accept the concept of free will, God’s superabundant gift of grace and salvation through Jesus Christ to all, if only for the asking; understanding due to free will and original sin, causing a darkness of the will, soul, and mind, that some would reject this superabundant free gift of eternal life.

Calvinists(Presbyterians) emphasize the active nature of God’s decree to choose those foreordained to eternal wrath, yet at the same time the passive nature of that foreordination.  God gives His grace to the elect, and not to the reprobate, leaving them to themselves, and their ultimate, inevitable damnation. So, you could unwittingly be tempted to argue that there really is no difference between free will and the doctrine of reprobation, but, ahem, as they say, and truly so, the devil is in the details.

This is possible because most Calvinists(Presbyterians) hold to an Infralapsarian, the Calvinist theological discipline of the logical order of God’s decrees, view of God’s decree. In that view, God, before Creation, in His mind, first decreed that the Fall would take place, before decreeing election and reprobation. So God actively chooses whom to condemn, the reprobate, but because He knows they will have a sinful nature, the way He foreordains them is to simply let them be – this is sometimes called “preterition.”

Therefore, this foreordination to wrath is passive in nature (unlike God’s active predestination of His elect where He needs to overcome their sinful nature). So, in order to make reprobation line up with free will you have to do some logical gymnastics and hoops, which Calvinism intentionally makes you do, to come out somewhere near a fruitless effort to seem like free will, tadah; but, it’s really not.

Calvinists hold that even if their scheme is characterized as a form of determinism, it is one which insists upon the free agency and moral responsibility of the individual. How, this editor does not know.

Additionally, Calvinists(Presbyterians) hold that the will is in bondage to sin and therefore unable to actualize its true freedom. Hence, an individual whose will is enslaved to sin cannot choose to serve God. Since Calvinists(Presbyterians) further hold that salvation is by grace apart from good works (sola gratia) and since they view making a choice to trust God (free will/faith) as an action or work, they maintain that the act of choosing cannot be the difference between salvation and damnation, as in the Arminian scheme. Rather, God must first free the individual from his enslavement to sin to a greater degree than in Arminianism, and then the regenerated heart naturally chooses the good. This work by God is sometimes called irresistible, in the sense that grace enables a person to freely cooperate, being set free from the desire to do the opposite, so that cooperation is not the cause of salvation but the other way around.  God saves the elect by fiat of grace to them only and personally, without personal choice or knowledge of the elect, and they cooperate with Him.


-by Karlo Broussard

“John Calvin is famous for teaching that God doesn’t just permit moral evil, but he positively directs sinners to sin. Of “wicked” and “obstinate” men, Calvin claimed that

“[God] bends them to execute His judgments, just as if they carried their orders engraven on their minds. And hence it appears that they are impelled by the sure appointment of God (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 1, Ch. 18, sec. 3; emphasis added).”

Notice that for Calvin sinners don’t sin merely because God allows them to do so (His permissive will). Rather, he “impels” or “bends” (forces) them to sin.

But is it even possible for God to cause someone to sin?

Consider that if God were to move us to sin he would be turning us away from him, away from our ultimate end or goal, “for man sins through wandering away from [God] who is his last end” (Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles 3.162). In other words, God would be moving us to not love Him, and if so, He would fail to will the divine goodness more than any other good (cf. Summa Theologiae I:19:9). And this failure would be due either to a lack of knowledge that He is the supreme good, or a failure in due attraction to Himself as the supreme good.

But God can’t possibly fail in knowledge that He’s the supreme good because He’s omniscient. Nor can He fail to be attracted to Himself as the highest good, for that would entail a desire for some good outside the order of reason, which is impossible because He’s perfectly good.

In fact, God can’t fail in any sense. Failure necessarily entails unactualized potential. But God is traditionally understood to be pure actuality, or pure existence itself, the very notion of which excludes the idea of unactualized potential. Therefore, God can’t fail lest He cease being God.

Since God moving us to sin would entail a failure on God’s part, and God can’t fail, it follows that God can’t move us to sin.

Now, someone may just reject this classical notion of God in order to keep the idea that God moves us to sin. But then there’s not much value in a deity that’s finite and subject to defect. This position undermines the very divine sovereignty that folks like Calvin seek to preserve in asserting that God moves us to sin.

The desire to preserve God’s sovereignty is laudable. But there’s another way to preserve it that doesn’t require us to give up divine perfection.

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that God gives some people the assistance of grace that leads them to glory in heaven (an assistance that doesn’t violate human freedom), while He permits others to fall into sin, the consequence of which is deprivation of further graces ordered to salvation (SCG 3.163). And since this is all “ordered from eternity by His wisdom,” so Aquinas reasons, “it follows of necessity that the aforesaid distinction among men has been ordered by God from eternity.”

The preordination of some to be moved to their last end is called predestination. The permissive decree to not uphold someone in the good and allow that person to sin is called reprobation. On this account, both predestination and reprobation belong to God’s providence.

Nothing is lost. God’s nature as pure actuality is preserved because there’s no unrealized potential. He remains the source of all good because those who attain final glory do so because of God’s grace. God’s sovereignty is preserved because not even sin escapes his divine plan, since from all eternity He wills to permit it. Nor is God’s innocence lost because He doesn’t move us to do evil.

Now, someone might object: “This account doesn’t protect divine innocence any more than Calvin’s system, since God could have given the grace to prevent someone from sinning if He wanted to do so.”

First of all, God is not bound in justice to give us what is not our due. In the words of Rev. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, “It is natural [Ed. according God’s will, the natural law, natural revelation] that what is defectible should sometimes fail.”

As finite creatures made in God’s image who are given the gift of freedom, our final end is in Him—not in ourselves. We must therefore direct ourselves to our final end by an act of free will, in collaboration with God’s grace. But that entails the possibility to sin. So, for God to preserve us from sin by grace would be for Him to give us something over and above what’s due to us as finite rational beings. And since God is not bound in justice to himself to give us what’s not due to our nature, it follows that God is not unjust for permitting us to sin.

Now, this doesn’t mean those whom God permits to fall into sin don’t have a chance at salvation. Aquinas teaches that God “for his part, is prepared to give graces to all” (SCG 3.159). He quotes 1 Timothy 2:4 for biblical support: “[God]…desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” And how does He do this?

“The common and wonted course of justification is that God moves the soul interiorly and that man is converted to God, first by an imperfect conversion, that it may afterwards become perfect (ST I-II:113:10).”

God gives to all the grace that leads to an imperfect conversion, and because this grace has the potential to lead to further good acts meritorious of salvation, there’s a real chance at salvation: “the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery” (Gaudium et Spes 22).

With regard to the grace needed to perform more-perfect acts, like a more perfect act of conversion, God only withholds it if man resists the order that the first grace has to the more perfect act. Again, Aquinas writes,

“But those alone are deprived of grace, who place in themselves an obstacle to grace: thus he who shuts his eyes while the sun is shining is to be blamed if an accident occurs, although he is unable to see unless the sun’s light enable him to do so (SCG 3.159).”

This allows Aquinas to conclude that “God does not cause grace not to be supplied to someone; rather, those not supplied with grace offer an obstacle to grace” (De Malo q. III, a. 1, ad 8).

God does permit us to sin, but this doesn’t count against God’s goodness because He’s not bound in justice to Himself to prevent us from sinning.  [Ed. His knowledge that we will sin, and that some will be damned, and even whom, does not prevent, or interrupt our free will.  Knowing something does not effect or alter or change or impel a result of the consequence of free will. cf Augustine.  Also, God knows every combination that can happen, so, in that way, God is omniscient.  When we think of God knows the future, we fail in understanding and imagination that as only one possible thread existing preemptive and future.]

As to why God doesn’t rescue every man from sin, and allows some to fall into it, it’s a mystery. As Aquinas says, it “has no reason, except the divine will” (ST I:23:5 ad 3).

So, for anyone who wants to hold to the idea that God moves us to sin, as Calvin believed, he must hold an idea of God as a finite being who is subject to error. The view articulated by Aquinas doesn’t require this of us. It preserves God’s perfection and his divine sovereignty by allowing both predestination and reprobation to be part of God’s providence without having to say God moves us to sin.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

The Black Death & the Protestant Revolution

“The arrival of the Black Death in Christendom — perhaps the most destructive pandemic in world history, which killed, by very reliable estimates, about half the population of Europe. In some areas the death toll may have been as high as 80 percent.

“It was a visitation upon a scale so enormous as to strike a blow at medieval society which might have dissolved it — and nearly did dissolve it. . . . In some places towns and villages sank never to rise again. . . . You may trace its effects even today in the half-finished buildings which were stopped dead and their completion never undertaken.”22

It’s no wonder many Catholics believed that Pestilence, the first of St. John’s Four Horsemen, had made his prophesied appearance (see Rev. 6).

One of the cruelest ironies about the Black Death is the way it contributed so heavily to the deterioration of the clergy. In what way? Imagine the workload for a priest: confessions, last rites, comfort to survivors, and Christian burial (when possible) from sunup to sundown for weeks, months, years on end. And though science did not yet know what caused the Black Death, everyone knew very well by common sense alone that whoever spent time around the plague usually died from it sooner or later. So the clergy who took the sacraments into the plague zones were spiritually akin to the firemen who ran toward the Twin Towers on 9/11 while everyone else was running away. The faithful bishop, the loyal priest, the dutiful deacon all ministered as long as they could, and then died. The cowards and deserters fled and survived — to become practically the whole clergy in the post plague years. No wonder the fifteenth century was such a dumpster fire.

As a direct result of this factor, the Faith itself got lost somewhere along the way — or adulterated, at any rate, by a nasty tincture of superstition. The plague shut down churches and monasteries, all the places where the real Christian Faith was meant to be taught (and had been for a long time, despite individual lapses).

Many of the clergy ordained to replace the fallen became “Mass priests” — priests, that is, who literally did nothing but recite the Mass because they had no training and did not know how to preach. Deprived of solid doctrine this way, the laity took on bad doctrines, often spread by teachers who were simply ignorant. Sub-Christian notions crept back in and distorted Catholic teaching.

The Church’s perfectly sound traditions about the correct use of sacramentals, for instance, were allowed to mix with leftovers from Europe’s recently dead pagan past. Sacred medals became charms; relics were confused with rabbit’s feet. In a disaster area like this, with no time to spare for jumping through moral or theological hoops, quick cures were needed — so the Church became a source for magic pills, not spiritual salvation. Doctors and theologians kept the true teaching on the books, to be sure, but popular extravagances happened far away from the universities. “For instance,” as Belloc writes,

the doctrine of the Invocation of Saints is clear; but towards the end of the Middle Ages you get men robbing one shrine to enrich another. The doctrine of the use of Masses is clear, and especially their use for the benefit of the souls in Purgatory; but the superstition that a Mass in this place was efficacious, and in that was not — the superstition which confuses mechanical repetition with spiritual force grew as the Middle Ages declined.23

Somewhat akin to this are the many fantastic legends about the saints and the early Church that grew up during these years, based, in many cases, on few, if any, historical facts. Most of them were perhaps harmless — saints who never existed, shrines built at the sites of miracles that never happened — harmless, that is, until they came to be confused with the actual tenets of the Faith. Laypeople lost the ability to distinguish between actual Sacred Tradition and tradition with a small t (i.e., just old, oft-repeated stories, many times nothing but wives’ tales). Worse, both sets of ideas came to be held with the same tenacity — leaving the Resurrection of Our Blessed Lord in the same category with St. George’s dragon.

And then, a few decades later, when some Lollard or Lutheran came along, bringing proofs against the “Donation of Constantine” or the “False Decretals,” many a vulnerable papist joined the Protestants in their Bible-only beliefs, convinced that they had now seen the folly of “man-made” Christianity.

When the Black Death began to subside in the late 1300s, some measure of order was restored. Why, afterward, weren’t efforts made to sort through these fables and false documents? There were — but only after the Protestant revolt. Before then, there was simply too little incentive to overcome the inertia. And here, of course, is where the bad shepherds returned big time. Too much money was being generated by this point, money the Church had come to depend on. The best example is the most famous: the sale of indulgences, against which Luther wrote his Ninety-Five Theses.”

-Bennett, Rod. Bad Shepherds: The Dark Years in Which the Faithful Thrived While Bishops Did the Devil’s Work . (c) 2018 Sophia Institute Press. Kindle Edition. Location: 874-913

Love,
Matthew

22 Hilaire Belloc, The Crisis of Civilization (Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 1992), 89.
23 Ibid., 81.

Sola Scriptura is unbiblical


-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.

During his four-year tour, he became involved in ministry with various Assemblies of God communities. Immediately after his tour of duty, Tim enrolled in Jimmy Swaggart Bible College and became a youth minister in an Assembly of God community. During his final year in the Marines, however, Tim met a Marine who really knew his faith and challenged Tim to study Catholicism from Catholic and historical sources. That encounter sparked a two-year search for the truth. Tim was determined to prove Catholicism wrong, but he ended up studying his way to the last place he thought he would ever end up: the Catholic Church!

He converted to Catholicism in 1988 and spent the following six years in formation for the priesthood, earning a degree in philosophy from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, Pennsylvania. He then studied theology on a graduate level at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, for two years. Realizing that his calling was not to the priesthood, Tim left the seminary in 1994 and has been working in Catholic apologetics and evangelization ever since.

“Sola Scriptura was the central doctrine and foundation for all I believed when I was Protestant. On a popular level, it simply meant, “If a teaching isn’t explicit in the Bible, then we don’t accept it as doctrine!” And it seemed so simple. Unassailable. And yet, I do not recall ever hearing a detailed teaching explicating it. It was always a given. Unchallenged. Diving deeper into its meaning, especially when I was challenged to defend my Protestant faith against Catholicism, I found there to be no book specifically on the topic and no uniform understanding of this teaching among Protestant pastors.

Once I got past the superficial, I had to try to answer real questions like, what role does tradition play? How explicit does a doctrine have to be in Scripture before it can be called doctrine? How many times does it have to be mentioned in Scripture before it would be dogmatic? Where does Scripture tell us what is absolutely essential for us to believe as Christians? How do we know what the canon of Scripture is using the principle of sola scriptura? Who is authorized to write Scripture in the first place? When was the canon closed? Or, the best question of all: where is sola scriptura taught in the Bible? These questions and more were left virtually unanswered or left to the varying opinions of various Bible teachers.

The Protestant Response

In answer to this last question, “Where is sola scriptura taught in the Bible?” most Protestants will immediately respond as I did, by simply citing II Tm. 3:16:

“All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

“How can it get any plainer than that? Doesn’t that say the Bible is all we need?” Question answered.

The fact is: II Timothy 3—or any other text of Scripture—does not even hint at sola scriptura. It says Scripture is inspired and necessary to equip “the man of God,” but never does it say Scripture alone is all anyone needs. We’ll come back to this text in particular later. But in my experience as a Protestant, it was my attempt to defend this bedrock teaching of Protestantism that led me to conclude: sola scriptura is 1) unreasonable 2) unbiblical and 3) unworkable.

Sola Scriptura is Unreasonable

When defending sola scriptura, the Protestant will predictably appeal to his sole authority—Scripture. This is a textbook example of the logical fallacy of circular reasoning which betrays an essential problem with the doctrine itself. One cannot prove the inspiration of a text from the text itself. The Book of Mormon, the Hindu Vedas, writings of Mary Baker Eddy, the Koran, and other books claim inspiration. This does not make them inspired. One must prove the point outside of the text itself to avoid the fallacy of circular reasoning.

Thus, the question remains: how do we know the various books of the Bible are inspired and therefore canonical? And remember: the Protestant must use the principle of sola scriptura in the process.

II Tim. 3:16 is not a valid response to the question. The problems are manifold. Beyond the fact of circular reasoning, for example, I would point out the fact that this verse says all Scripture is inspired tells us nothing of what the canon consists. Just recently, I was speaking with a Protestant inquirer about this issue and he saw my point. He then said words to the effect of, “I believe the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth as Jesus said in Jn. 16:13. The Holy Spirit guided the early Christians and helped them to gather the canon of Scripture and declare it to be the inspired word of God. God would not leave us without his word to guide us.”

That answer is much more Catholic than Protestant! Yes, Jn. 16:13 does say the Spirit will lead the apostles—and by allusion, the Church—into all truth. But this verse has nothing to say about sola scriptura. Nor does it say a word about the nature or number of books in the canon. Catholics certainly agree that the Holy Spirit guided the early Christians to canonize the Scriptures because the Catholic Church teaches that there is an authoritative Church guided by the Holy Spirit. The obvious problem is my Protestant friend did not use sola scriptura as his guiding principle to arrive at his conclusion. How does, for example, Jn. 16:13 tell us that Hebrews was written by an apostolic writer and that it is inspired of God? We would ultimately have to rely on the infallibility of whoever “the Holy Spirit” is guiding to canonize the Bible so that they could not mishear what the Spirit was saying about which books of the Bible are truly inspired.

In order to put this argument of my friend into perspective, can you imagine if a Catholic made a similar claim to demonstrate, say, Mary to be the Mother of God? “We believe the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth and guided the early Christians to declare this truth.” I can almost hear the response. “Show me in the Bible where Mary is the Mother of God! I don’t want to hear about God guiding the Church!” Wouldn’t the same question remain for the Protestant concerning the canon? “Show me in the Bible where the canon of Scripture is, what the criterion for the canon is, who can and cannot write Scripture, etc.”

Will the Circle be Unbroken?

The Protestant response at this point is often an attempt to use the same argument against the Catholic. “How do you know the Scriptures are inspired? Your reasoning is just as circular because you say the Church is infallible because the inspired Scriptures say so and then say the Scriptures are inspired and infallible because the Church says so!”

The Catholic Church’s position on inspiration is not circular. We do not say “the Church is infallible because the inspired Scriptures say so, and the Scriptures are inspired because the infallible Church says so.” That would be a kind of circular reasoning. The Church was established historically and functioned as the infallible spokesperson for the Lord decades before the New Testament was written. The Church is infallible because Jesus said so.

Having said that, it is true that we know the Scriptures to be inspired because the Church has told us so. That is also an historical fact. However, this is not circular reasoning. When the Catholic approaches Scripture, he or she begins with the Bible as an historical document, not as inspired. As any reputable historian will tell you, the New Testament is the most accurate and verifiable historical document in all of ancient history. To deny the substance of the historical documents recorded therein would be absurd. However, one cannot deduce from this that they are inspired. There are many accurate historical documents that are not inspired. However, the Scriptures do give us accurate historical information whether one holds to their inspiration or not. Further, this testimony of the Bible is backed up by hundreds of works by early Christians and non-Christian writers like Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Josephus, and more. It is on this basis that we can say it is an historical fact that Jesus lived, died, and was reported to be resurrected from the dead by over 500 eyewitnesses. Many of these eyewitnesses went to their deaths testifying to the veracity of the Christ-event (see Lk. 1:1-4, Jn. 21:18-19, 24-25, Acts 1:1-11, I Cr. 15:1-8).

Now, what do we find when we examine the historical record? Jesus Christ—as a matter of history–established a Church, not a book, to be the foundation of the Christian Faith (see Mt. 16:15-18; 18:15-18. Cf. Eph. 2:20; 3:10,20-21; 4:11-15; I Tm. 3:15; Hb. 13:7,17, etc.). He said of his Church, “He who hears you hears me and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk. 10:16). The many books that comprise what we call the Bible never tell us crucial truths such as the fact that they are inspired, who can and cannot be the human authors of them, who authored them at all, or, as I said before, what the canon of Scripture is in the first place. And this is just to name a few examples. What is very clear historically is that Jesus established a kingdom with a hierarchy and authority to speak for him (see Lk. 20:29-32, Mt. 10:40, 28:18-20). It was members of this Kingdom—the Church—that would write the Scripture, preserve its many texts and eventually canonize it. The Scriptures cannot write or canonize themselves. To put it simply, reason clearly rejects sola scriptura as a self-refuting principle because one cannot determine what the “scriptura” is using the principle of sola scriptura.

Sola Scriptura is Unbiblical

Let us now consider the most common text used by Protestants to “prove” sola scriptura, II Tm. 3:16, which I quoted above:

All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

The problem with using this text as such is threefold: 1. Strictly speaking, it does not speak of the New Testament at all. 2. It does not claim Scripture to be the sole rule of faith for Christians. 3. The Bible teaches oral Tradition to be on a par with and just as necessary as the written Tradition, or Scripture.

1. What’s Old is Not New

Let us examine the context of the passage by reading the two preceding verses:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood (italics added) you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

In context, this passage does not refer to the New Testament at all. None of the New Testament books had been written when St. Timothy was a child! To claim this verse in order to authenticate a book, say, the book of Revelation, when it had most likely not even been written yet, is more than a stretch. That is going far beyond what the text actually claims.

2. The Trouble With Sola

As a Protestant, I was guilty of seeing more than one sola in Scripture that simply did not exist. The Bible clearly teaches justification by faith. And we Catholics believe it. However, we do not believe in justification by faith alone because, among many other reasons, the Bible says, we are “justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24, emphasis added). Analogously, when the Bible says Scripture is inspired and profitable for “the man of God,” to be “equipped for every good work,” we Catholics believe it. However, the text of II Tim. 3:16 never says Scripture alone. There is no sola to be found here either! Even if we granted II Tm. 3:16 was talking about all of Scripture, it never claims Scripture to be the sole rule of faith. A rule of faith, to be sure! But not the sole rule of faith.

James 1:4 illustrates clearly the problem with Protestant exegesis of II Tim. 3:16:

And let steadfastness (patience) have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

If we apply the same principle of exegesis to this text that the Protestant does to II Tm. 3:16 we would have to say that all we need is patience to be perfected. We don’t need faith, hope, charity, the Church, baptism, etc.

Of course, any Christian would immediately say this is absurd. And of course it is. But James’s emphasis on the central importance of patience is even stronger than St. Paul’s emphasis on Scripture. The key is to see that there is not a sola to be found in either text. Sola patientia would be just as much an error as is sola scriptura.

3. The Tradition of God is the Word of God

Not only is the Bible silent when it comes to sola scriptura, but Scripture is remarkably plain in teaching oral Tradition to be just as much the word of God as is Scripture. In what most scholars believe was the first book written in the New Testament, St. Paul said:

And we also thank God… that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God… (I Thess. 2:13)

II Thess. 2:15 adds:

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions you have been taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.

According to St. Paul, the spoken word from the apostles was just as much the word of God as was the later written word.

Sola Scriptura is Unworkable

When it comes to the tradition of Protestantism—sola scriptura—the silence of the text of Scripture is deafening. When it comes to the true authority of Scripture and Tradition, the Scriptures are clear. And when it comes to the teaching and governing authority of the Church, the biblical text is equally as clear:

If your brother sins against you go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone … But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you … If he refuses to listen … tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Mt. 18:15-17)

According to Scripture, the Church—not the Bible alone—is the final court of appeal for the people of God in matters of faith and discipline. But isn’t it also telling that since the Reformation of just ca. 480 years ago—a reformation claiming sola scriptura as its formal principle—there are now over 33,000 denominations that have derived from it?

For 1,500 years, Christianity saw just a few enduring schisms (the Monophysites, Nestorians, the Orthodox, and a very few others). Now in just 480 years we have this? I hardly think that when Jesus prophesied there would be “one shepherd and one fold” in Jn. 10:16, this is what he had in mind. It seems quite clear to me that not only is sola scriptura unreasonable and unbiblical, but it is unworkable. The proof is in the puddin’!”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Bad Shepherds: Jan Hus

The use of force, punishment, threat and fear are necessary for the keeping of order and the maintenance of right laws in action. But in a healthy state of affairs, much the greater part in the strength of authority is moral. Men obey because they think they ought to obey; because they feel that the authority which governs them has a right to do so. As moral authority weakens, those who exercise authority tend to fall back upon physical restraint, punishment, and the irrational fear of consequences as a method of administration. That is what happened towards the end of the Middle Ages. Force alone was used against heresy in every form, and not only against heresy but even against grumblings at the powers of the clergy. . . . Everywhere attacked and losing [their] moral sanctions, the officers of the Church fell back with increasing severity and frequency upon restraint by fear. This evil, the association of violence and horrible punishment with the maintenance of orthodoxy, grew rapidly throughout the end of the decline; and nothing did more to provoke the violent outburst to follow, in which the unity of Christendom was broken asunder.26

Jan Hus was a Czech priest who served as rector of Charles University in Prague at the turn of the fifteenth century. Actual Protestantism was still more than a hundred years off, but Hus, who lived and died a Catholic, gradually became interested in the writings of John Wycliffe. Clergy mortality from the Black Death had been especially high in England, and Wycliffe, the master of Balliol College, had seen all the worst men in Oxfordshire rise to the Catholic episcopate. His simmering fury over the whole thing began expressing itself in books that eventually reached Bohemia.

Unlike his teacher, Hus did not respond to the scandals by attacking the dogma of transubstantiation (which, after all, does depend on a validly ordained priesthood). But he did begin to share Wycliffe’s Donatist beliefs that the Catholic clergy had relinquished all its prerogatives through sin and simony.

Hus’s remedy?

The Church ought to sell off the entirety of her property and make the whole clergy take a vow of abject poverty. Indulgences and the like must be banned, and the Bible must become Christianity’s sole guidebook. In 1377, Hus published his ideas, which quickly earned the condemnation of Pope Gregory XI. A few years later, Innocent VII censured Hus and forbade any further broadsides against the clergy. By 1409, Hus’s sympathetic archbishop was forced to stop protecting him. Another new pope was elected, antipope Alexander V, and Hus decided to appeal to him directly, offering to explain his teachings in person. He was rebuffed. In 1412, his followers burned the papal bulls that had been issued against Hus. Three of them were taken and beheaded. King Wenceslaus of Bohemia tried to intervene and almost got into hot water himself with Gregory XII.

Finally, Jan Hus was sent to trial. Yet another antipope, John XXIII, chose a committee of bishops to adjudicate the matter. Hus’s condemnation took place on June 5, 1415. He was held for another seventy-three days and then burned alive, the same punishment Wycliffe underwent some twenty years earlier. Before being consigned to the flames, he prayed the Jesus Prayer and forgave his enemies. He was undoubtedly a heretic — as some in our times have become through shock and dismay — but when he said that indulgences had become a colossal fraud, that the monasteries were rotten with idleness and sexual sin, and that the bishops, for the most part, were in it for the money, Jan Hus told the God’s honest truth.

…The killing of Hus, in other words, resulted from a perfect storm of all three of our fourteenth-century catastrophes. (Great Western Schism/Avignon Papacy/Babylonian Captivity, Black Death, & Hundred Years’ War)

Love,
Matthew

26 Belloc, The Crisis of Civilization, 86.

Bad Shepherds: The Reformation

(The editor highly recommends reading the posts “Sin (Parts 1-4)” as a preface.)

….Spiritual goods merited by the saints are stored up with God as in a treasury (treasury of merit). These treasures, under certain circumstances, can be applied to the needs of other Church members still on earth — and the pope, as successor of Peter, holds the keys. What kinds of needs are we talking about? The need, for instance, to have the sufferings brought about by our own sins and follies lessened.

…an indulgence can be granted only to a living, baptized Christian believer. It’s of no use for keeping someone out of hell, for that issue is settled only by graces earned by Christ Himself applied directly to the believing soul in baptism. Post-baptismal sin, too, is absolved not by an indulgence but by confession. The indulgences offered by the Church were (and still are) useful for mitigating troubles in time — temporal chastisement here on earth during the struggle for sanctification and, if necessary, in the purging that comes to a saved soul immediately after death.

…the idea that an indulgence obtained by a living believer might, on his own authority, be transferred to a third party (a deceased loved one in purgatory, for example) was a theory sometimes entertained but never actually taught by the Church. Pope Leo X, again, certainly understood all this — but he also knew that these fine distinctions, during those troubled times, were well over the heads of the Catholic masses.

Even so, he sent out his authorized sellers. Johann Tetzel, for example, was a German Dominican friar engaged to preach the great indulgence of 1517, a campaign undertaken (ostensibly) to help finance the construction of the largest church building on earth, the new St. Peter’s going up in Rome. Tetzel had been at this kind of work for some time already, having been commissioned by Pope Leo (while he was still Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici) to boost the Jubilee Indulgence more than a decade earlier. He had achieved great results. Tetzel was valued as a rousing street preacher, somebody who could “fill a hat” like practically no one else — but his technique was highly suspect. Later charges that he preached “indulgence” in our modern sense are slanderous, anachronistic nonsense. Indulgentia (a Latin word that may be rendered as “a kindness going forward”) was not, as so many Protestants have charged, a bribe offered to God by the impenitent, so that He might “go easy” or “look the other way” during the commission of future sins. And Tetzel probably did not use the silly advertising jingle so often associated with his name: “As soon as the coin in the coffer clinks, the soul from purgatory springs!” But he definitely promoted the same idea in subtler language. “The assertion,” as Catholic historian Ludwig von Pastor writes,

“that he put forward indulgences as being not only a remission of the temporal punishment of sin, but as a remission of its guilt, is as unfounded as is that other accusation against him, that he sold the forgiveness of sin for money, without even any mention of contrition and confession, or that, for payment, he absolved from sins which might be committed in the future. . . . About indulgences for the living, Tetzel always taught pure doctrine. . . . The case was very different, however, with indulgences for the dead. About these there is no doubt that Tetzel did, according to what he considered his authoritative instructions, proclaim as Christian doctrine that nothing but an offering of money was required to gain the indulgence for the dead, without there being any question of contrition or confession. He also taught, in accordance with the opinion then held, that an indulgence could be applied to any given soul with unfailing effect. Starting from this assumption, there is no doubt that his doctrine was virtually that of the well-known drastic proverb.”24

When Tetzel arrived at Wittenberg in Saxony, word of his message reached Martin Luther, who was an important teacher of theology at the Catholic university there. The ordinary people who attended the rallies, Luther claimed (and there’s no real reason to disbelieve him), came away from Tetzel’s preaching convinced that they could free their loved ones from purgatory purely for a price. Luther wrote to his bishop, Albert of Brandenburg, to protest. And here’s where things got dicey. Tetzel had received his license to preach in the pope’s name via this selfsame archbishop of Brandenburg, who had, as it happens, arranged with Leo in advance to send him about half the money raised, for the construction project in Rome — and to keep the other half himself to pay off the deep debts he incurred while obtaining his appointment to the archbishopric. This the ordinary people did not know. And Albert himself, once he received the letter, went after Luther, the whistle-blower.

Luther probably didn’t know about this bad shepherd’s abuse either; there’s no specific mention of it, at any rate, in the Ninety-Five Theses, which focus almost entirely on theology. We know about it today, however, and it highlights like nothing else one of the major reasons the clergy were so resistant to reform during these crucial years. They were convinced that the Church needed the money to continue. The popes had, for decades, given their sanction to similar transactions quite openly, and in exchange for a fee. Even secular rulers had a hand in perpetuating the festering mess because large indulgence rallies like Tetzel’s generated money for local economies like a big football championship — merchants, innkeepers, and the like, and burgomasters, city councilmen, and so forth often received a cut from “civic-minded” groups. The whole thing stank like a garbage dump.

Luther wasn’t the only one who cried foul about the theology. His later opponent Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, sent to reclaim Luther for the Faith in 1518, had been protesting the same irresponsible preaching for years — and Cajetan definitely did know where the money went: “Preachers,” he said,

“speak in the name of the Church only so long as they proclaim the doctrine of Christ and His Church; but if, for purposes of their own, they teach that about which they know nothing, and which is only their own imagination, they must not be accepted as mouthpieces of the Church. No one must be surprised if such as these fall into error.”25

To put it bluntly, an indulgence preacher who kept it simple (“As soon as the coin in the coffer clinks . . .”) ginned up cash a lot faster than a careful theologian, and so Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show was suffered to continue.

None of this should, of course, be taken as a defense for Martin Luther’s later revolution. The apostles established a Church with “one Lord, one Faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5), which no man is justified in sundering, no matter how many Judases stain her offices or how infuriating their offenses. Benedict Arnold, in other words, is no less a traitor if America really did have crimes of her own to atone for and abuses (such as slavery) as yet unreformed.

But not just any old stick is good enough to beat Martin Luther with; and the abuse he overreacted to was no less an abuse because his own later crimes were also great. It does not seem to have occurred to Pope Leo, after all, that he might easily have paid off St. Peter’s to the glory of God by liquidating his own luxuries and those of his equally profligate Curia. That same Leo once said (if the legend is true), “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.”

Love,
Matthew

24 Ludwig von Pastor, The History of the Popes, from the Close of the Middle Ages, ed. Ralph Francis Kerr (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1908), 7.
25 Ibid., 7.