“Two terms that often appear in Protestant discussions of faith and works are legalism and antinomianism. The first is giving law too much emphasis, and the second is giving law too little emphasis.
The law in question is God’s law, and in the Bible, the most famous expression of God’s law, was given through Moses. It contains the Ten Commandments, as well as all the other regulations that were part of the Mosaic covenant.
This expression of God’s law became so prominent in Jewish thinking that it is referred to as “the Law of Moses” (Josh. 8:31; Luke 2:22; 1 Cor. 9:9; etc.) or even simply as “the Law” (Matt. 22:36; Luke 5:17; Rom. 2:12; etc.). The latter term also came to be applied to the first five books of the Bible—the Torah or Pentateuch—which contain this law. It is thus spoken of as “the Law,” in contrast to “the prophets,” which are the other major part of the Old Testament (Matt. 5:17; Luke 16:16; Rom. 3:21; etc.).
Traditionally, Jewish theologians have divided the commandments of the law into two classes: those that require an action (“thou shalt”) and those that forbid an action (“thou shalt not”). However, Christian theologians have distinguished three types of commandments, based on the nature of what they require or forbid.
The first are moral commandments, which convey ethical principles (e.g., “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery”; Exod. 20:12-13). The second are ceremonial precepts that governed the ritual life of Israel (e.g., killing the Passover lamb or the distinction between clean and unclean foods; cf. Exod. 12; Lev. 11). The third type are often called the judicial or civil commands. These regulated the civil life of Israel. They include things like building codes (Deut. 22:8), penalties when one has committed theft (Lev. 6:5), and the establishment of safe zones where a person who has committed accidental homicide may flee (Num. 35:9-15).
Since the Law was given to the Jewish people, a key question for Christian theologians has been which of these commandments remain binding. One of the first controversies that faced the Church was whether Gentile converts to the Faith needed to be circumcised. The Church quickly determined that the answer was no (Acts 15; cf. Acts 10-11; Gal. 2). It was also established that Christians did not need to keep Jewish dietary laws or observe Jewish feast days (Col. 2:16; cf. Mark 7:19).
However, Jesus indicated that other commandments found in the Mosaic Law were binding, saying, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments,” and going on to explain, “You shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, honor your father and mother, and, you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 19:17-19).
It thus appeared that certain commandments were binding on Christians, but others were not. Since the commandments that Jesus cited were moral in nature, whereas the ones Christians were not bound to observe were ceremonial, the solution adopted in Catholic circles was that it is God’s moral commandments that apply to all peoples.
Thus, Paul can speak of Gentiles who do not have the Law of Moses but who nevertheless “do by nature what the Law requires,” for “what the Law requires is written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14-15). Since these moral commands are part of human nature, they constitute a “natural law” that all, including Christians, are bound to observe.
Christians are not bound to observe the ceremonial requirements of the Mosaic Law. These requirements pointed forward to the coming of Christ but have now been superseded (Col. 2:17). In their place, Christ has given us other ceremonies, such as baptism, which replaces circumcision and is thus “the circumcision of Christ” (Col. 2:11-12). Christians are thus bound not by the Law of Moses, but by “the law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2).
At the time of the Reformation, some Protestants did not like the concept of natural law, which they thought violated the principle of sola scriptura by encouraging us to look to human nature to figure out moral questions. However, other Protestants retained natural-law reasoning.
All Protestants have held that Christians are bound to observe God’s moral commandments, and most have agreed that Christians are not bound to observe the ceremonial and civil precepts of the Mosaic Law. But not all agree.
For example, Seventh-Day Adventists have held that Christians are obliged to observe certain laws traditionally considered ceremonial, such as the requirement to keep the Jewish Sabbath (i.e., Saturday).
Similarly, some Reformed (Calvinist) Protestants have advocated a view known as Christian Reconstructionism or Theonomy, which holds that the civil law of modern societies should be informed by the civil commandments of the Mosaic Law. This includes the use of Mosaic penalties for various crimes, and some authors have advocated the use of the death penalty for adultery, homosexuality, blasphemy, witchcraft, and belonging to a false religion.
In addition, there have been many disputes in Protestant circles about whether particular practices are compatible with God’s law—including ones mentioned in the Bible (e.g., drinking alcohol, dancing, gambling, wearing makeup) and others not mentioned (e.g., smoking).
When two groups of Protestants have different views of how God’s law should be applied, the group seen as requiring too much of Christians is likely to be accused of legalism, whereas the group seen as requiring too little is likely to be accused of antinomianism (from Greek roots meaning “against the law”).
In addition, these terms are applied to those who are seen as requiring too much or too little for salvation. Thus, those who think repentance from sin or baptism are required may be accused of teaching “works salvation” and legalism by those who do not, and the latter will be accused of antinomianism by those who do.”
“I have found that the canon of Scripture is the single most fruitful topic to discuss with Protestant friends. The canon is the set of books that make up the Bible—Scripture’s “table of contents”—and it is one of the most important issues between Catholics and Protestants for two reasons: first, because the Catholic and Protestant canons differ (Catholics have seventy-three books in their canon and Protestants have sixty-six); second, because Protestants believe in a doctrine called sola scriptura or “the Bible alone.”
Sola scriptura means that only the Bible is the sole, infallible rule of faith and the sole source of public revelation given by God to man. Under this doctrine, Scripture is the first, best, and ultimate depository for divine truth, as well as the only one that is without error, having been inspired by God himself, who cannot lie.
But for sola scriptura to be true, we must first be able to know which books, exactly, make up Scripture (i.e., the biblical canon). We must also know this biblical canon with a certainty strong enough to bind our consciences. After all, if we believe that God inspired books to be written such that they are without error but we don’t know which books those are, we are left in the unacceptable position of not knowing whether a given book is inspired (and therefore inerrant) or whether it is just another book written from the mind of a human being.
Martin Luther was not afraid to challenge the canon of Scripture. He relegated four New Testament books to an appendix, denying that they were divinely inspired. Though this alteration of the New Testament wasn’t adopted by the Protestant movements, his alteration of the Old Testament was, and by the end of the Reformation Protestantism had removed seven books (the deuterocanonicals) from the Old Testament canon.
This means if Protestantism is true, God allowed the early Church to put seven books in the Bible that didn’t belong there.
Why Protestants changed their canon
The Protestants rejected the books for several reasons, two of which we will focus on here. The first was a “problematic” passage in 2 Maccabees, and the second was their desire to go “back to the sources”—ad fontes—which to them meant using the same books that the Jews had decided upon.
2 Maccabees included a laudatory reference to prayers for the dead, a practice that the Catholic Church had encouraged for assisting the souls in purgatory. Recall Luther’s protest of the sale of indulgences to remove the temporal punishment due for already forgiven sins—punishment that must be paid before a soul would be fit to enter heaven. Luther and the Reformers rejected purgatory, so all that was connected with it also had to go: indulgences, prayers for the dead, and the communion of saints (which includes those both living and asleep in Christ).
The Reformers pointed out that these seven books were not included in the Jewish Hebrew Bible. For that reason, they argued, the books should not be accepted by Christians. Some Protestant apologists seek to bolster this claim by mentioning the theory that, around A.D. 90, a council of Jews at Jamnia explicitly rejected these books. (The consensus among modern scholars is that the Jews closed their canon closer to the end of the second century A.D.)
Others like to point out that some Church Fathers rejected one or more of these books. They strengthen this argument with the testimony of Josephus and Philo—two Jews from the first century—who also did not accept them.
Why the deuterocanonicals are inspired
Because Catholicism is true, the church Christ founded, and not the Jews, possessed the authority and divine guidance to discern the Old Testament canon.
A little historical background is needed here. The first Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, used during Jesus’ time, was called the Septuagint. It was an evolving set of books that was added to from the third century B.C. until the time of Christ. It remains the most ancient translation of the Old Testament that we have today and so is used to correct the errors that crept into the Hebrew (Masoretic) text, the oldest extant manuscripts of which date only from the ninth century.
The Septuagint was used extensively in the Near East by rabbis, and in the first century the apostles quoted prophecies from it in the books that became the New Testament. It was accepted as authoritative by the Jews of Alexandria and then by all Jews in Greek-speaking countries.
By the time of Christ, the Septuagint contained the deuterocanonical books. The majority of Old Testament quotes made by the New Testament authors come from the Septuagint. In fact, the early Church used the Septuagint as its primary Old Testament source until the fifth century. Its importance cannot be overstated.
Historical evidence also shows that there were multiple, conflicting Jewish canons at the time of Christ. Protestants claim that the Hebrew canon was closed at the time of Christ. But let’s stop and think about that: How could the Jews close their canon when they were still awaiting the advent of the new Elijah (John the Baptist) and the new Moses (Jesus)?
Recall that Malachi 4:5 tells us that God would send a new Elijah the prophet: “Behold I will send you Elias the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” We know from John 1:19-25 that the Jews were eagerly awaiting this new Elijah, as well as the new Moses.
Since many prophets in the Old Covenant had been inspired by God to write books, it only makes sense that the Jews would expect these two great prophets to write books as well. Closing the Hebrew canon before the prophets’ advent, then, would have been unthinkable.
Timothy Michael Law, in his new book When God Spoke Greek, has demonstrated that the Jews did not close their canon until the second century A.D. This fact renders the (alleged) Jewish council’s decision at Jamnia moot. It should be noted that most scholars today doubt that any such council ever took place.
But even if it did, would Jewish leaders possess the authority to make a decision binding upon the Christian Church? Those Jews who had accepted Christ had already become Christians. The remainder had no authority to decide anything about divine truth, as that authority had passed to those filled with the Holy Spirit (i.e., the apostles). The same goes for the opinions of Josephus and Philo. The Jews did not have the authority to decide the canon. The Church did.
Law also shows that the Greek Septuagint is a witness to an, at times, even more ancient textual stream of the Hebrew scriptures when compared with the Masoretic text. Ironically, this meant that the Reformers goofed when they relied upon the Masoretic text and the (truncated) Hebrew canon in their attempt to go “back to the original sources.” They should have used the Septuagint translation and included the seven deuterocanonical books! Thus the argument that Christians should base their Old Testament off of the Hebrew Bible rather than the Greek Septuagint is dubious.
Regarding Church Fathers doubting the deuterocanonical books, it is true that several rejected one or more of them or put them on a level lower than the rest of Scripture. But many, including those with doubts, quoted them as Scripture with no distinction from the rest of the Bible.
The broader fact is that the testimony of the Fathers was not unanimous on the Old Testament canon. Even Jerome, the great biblical scholar, early in his career favored the Hebrew canon but then changed his mind and submitted his opinion to the wisdom of the Church, accepting the deuterocanonicals as Scripture (ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf203.vi.xii.ii.xxvii.html).
Finally, it should be pointed out that Protestants seeking to defend their canon based on historical evidence—even if they are convinced they have found sufficient proof—run into an insurmountable problem: Nowhere in Scripture does it say that this is the way to know which books belong in the canon. Such a criterion for choosing the canon in fact contradicts sola scriptura, because it is an extra-biblical principle.
A consistent Protestant argument for selecting the canon of Scripture, then, must itself come from Scripture, which would create a circular argument. Unfortunately—but providentially—no such instructions from God exist. No table of contents is found in any biblical book. No scroll with a table of contents is considered inspired by Protestants (or by Catholics).
The self-authenticating canon
Most Protestant apologists realize that all their stalwart arguments have iron-clad rebuttals. And so many have abandoned those arguments and cling to their last remaining bastion: They claim that the inspired books authenticate themselves. This idea is so widely used that it is worthy of a lengthy explanation.
The self-authenticating canon means that a true Christian can read a given book and easily tell whether it is inspired by God or not. The Holy Spirit dwelling within the Christian would witness to the book’s inspiration. This theory did away with the need for trusting the corrupted early Church or for tracing the messy history of the canon’s development. Instead, you as a faithful Christian simply picked up your Bible, read the books, and listened for the inner witness of the Spirit telling you that the books were inspired by God.
Similarly, you could theoretically pick up a non-canonical epistle or Gospel from the first or second century, read it, and note the absence of the Spirit’s confirmation of its inspiration. As Calvin described it:
It is utterly vain, then, to pretend that the power of judging Scripture so lies with the church and that its certainty depends upon churchly assent. Thus, while the church receives and gives its seal of approval to Scripture, it does not thereby render authentic what is otherwise doubtful or controversial. . . . As to their question—How can we be assured that this has sprung from God unless we have recourse to the decree of the church?—it is as if someone asked: Whence will we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Indeed, Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste. . . . those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and Scripture indeed is self-authenticated (Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, vii.1, 2, 5).
Calvin makes two claims here. First, that the Church does not give authority to Scripture but rather Scripture has authority by the fact that God inspired it; second, that a Christian can know the canon from the Holy Spirit’s testimony within him, not by trusting a decision of the Church.
Calvin’s first claim has never been contested by the Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches, or any Christian. It is a straw man: The Church teaches that it received inspired texts from God (through human authors) and that God guided it in discerning which among many texts were truly inspired. The Church is thus the servant of written revelation and not its master.
Calvin’s second claim has become the common answer from Protestants who can’t concede that a corrupt Church selected the canon. There’s an element of truth to it: Surely the Holy Spirit does witness to our souls when we read the Bible. But Calvin sets up a false dichotomy here: Either the Church, by discerning the canon, imagines itself in authority over Scripture, or the canon is self-evident to any Christian. Calvin replaces the belief that God guided the Church in selecting the canon with the belief that God guides me or you in selecting it. He forces his readers to choose between these options, but in fact they are both false.
History contradicts Calvin’s claim
There is no principled reason, in Scripture or elsewhere, to believe that God would guide me or you in this discernment but not the Church. Moreover, Calvin’s subjective criterion for discerning the canon is surely impractical and unrealistic. How would a person seeking truth but not yet indwelt by the Holy Spirit know which books to read to find truth? What about a new Christian who had not learned to distinguish the inner voice of the Spirit from his own? At what point after his conversion would a Christian be considered ready to help define the canon? If two Christians disagreed, whose inner judgment would be used to arbitrate their dispute and identify the real canon?
Another problem with Calvin’s claim is that the facts of history contradict it. As we have seen, the selection of the canon was not an easy, debate-free process that ended with the close of written revelation in the early second century. Rather, the canon emerged slowly through a laborious process, with differing canons being proposed by different Church Fathers during these centuries.
If the canon were obvious and self-evident, the Holy Spirit would have led each of them to the same canon. Yet even these faithful, Spirit-filled men, so close to the time of the apostles and Christ himself, proposed different canons. It was not until almost A.D. 400 that the canon was settled, and it contained the seventy-three books of the Catholic Bible. When, more than 1,100 years later, the Reformers changed the canon by rejecting the seven deuterocanonical books (and Luther unsuccessfully tried to discard others), it was another example of intelligent and well-meaning Christians disagreeing about the “self-authenticated” canon.
The books of the canon are not obvious merely from reading them. Martin Luther should prove that to Protestants, since he was the founder of the Protestant Reformation, and yet he tried to jettison four books from the New Testament.
The Church discerns the Old Testament
This means that neither the New Testament nor the Old Testament is self-authenticating. And so we come full circle back to the question of the deuterocanonicals. Weighing this evidence, any open Protestant should be able to admit that the only thing keeping him back from considering these books as inspired by God is the Protestant tradition that rejected them. Is that tradition from God or from men?
The Church’s careful discernment of the canon settled on including the deuterocanonical books. And, with some occasional doubts, the books were consistently included in the canon from the 300s through the 1400s. In fact, the ecumenical council of Florence in the mid-1400s reaffirmed their inclusion in the Old Testament canon. This was long before Martin Luther and the first Protestants and lends further evidence that the Church accepted these books as inspired and did not “add” them to the canon in response to the Reformation, as many Protestants claim.
If Protestantism is true, then for more than a thousand years all of Christianity used an Old Testament that contained seven fully disposable, possibly deceptive books that God did not inspire. He did, however, allow the early Church to designate these books as Sacred Scripture and derive false teachings such as purgatory from their contents. Eventually, God’s chosen Reformer, Martin Luther, was able to straighten out this tragic error, even though his similar abridgment of the New Testament was a mistake.”
“One of the stickiest points in Catholic-Protestant debates is what is meant by the Protestant term sola scriptura, or “Scripture alone.”
Protestant apologists assert the doctrine but are often reluctant to offer a precise definition of it. Most will say that it does not mean certain things and will make a general stab at saying what it does mean, but I do not know of a Protestant apologist who has offered a complete and precise definition.
Thus, Catholic apologists are left in the unenviable position of critiquing an imprecise assertion. They commonly critique what they perceive most Protestants to mean by sola scriptura, which brings on nigh-inevitable charges of misrepresenting “the Protestant position.”
The problem is that there is no single Protestant position on sola scriptura. The term is used different ways, the details of which vary. But there seem to be two major ways the idea is interpreted.
At times the phrase is taken to mean that we must be able to derive from Scripture alone all of the theological truths that God wished to reveal to mankind—and even all of the religious practices in which Christians should engage (i.e., that Scripture is “sufficient for faith and practice”).
Other times a more restricted claim is made: that we can derive from Scripture alone all of the truths that are needed for salvation.
When the doctrine of sola scriptura is not under cross-examination, though, a more robust understanding is employed, and Evangelical Christians are trained to ask reflexively for a biblical basis whenever any theological idea or religious practice is proposed. Thus when Evangelicals talk with Catholics, they identify a particular Catholic doctrine or practice they disapprove of and then ask, “Where’s that in the Bible?” For example, an Evangelical may select a topic such as purgatory (a theological belief) or praying to saints (a practice) and demand a biblical basis for it.
Necessary for Salvation
Note that, strictly speaking, neither of these appears to involve a truth that is necessary for salvation: God exists; God is a Trinity; Jesus is God the Son; Jesus died on a cross for our sins; and we need to repent, believe, and be baptized to be saved—in other words, truths connected directly with the gospel.
Purgatory is not connected with the gospel in that way. Neither is praying to saints. A Protestant asking for biblical bases for these would seem to be using a more expansive understanding of sola scriptura than just the idea that Scripture states or implies all truths necessary for salvation. He seems to be expecting Scripture to contain bases for all theological truths and religious practices.
If the same individual retreats, when sola scriptura is being questioned, to the more modest understanding of it, then it is fair for the Catholic to note the inconsistency and ask him to choose one understanding of the doctrine and stick with it.
If he chooses the more expansive understanding, then he endorses a position that is much more difficult to defend. As many works of Catholic apologetics have shown, nobody in the pages of Scripture itself operated on the principle that all belief and practice should be derivable from Scripture alone. It’s hard to find passages that could be construed as teaching this idea, and it is easy to find passages that indicate the contrary, such as Paul’s exhortation to his readers to heed all of the traditions they had received, whether they were written in his letters or conveyed orally (2 Thess. 2:15).
If, though, the Evangelical chooses the more modest interpretation of sola scriptura, then he will have to let go of many common Protestant objections to Catholicism. If only truths necessary for salvation have to be given a biblical basis, then he would not be able to object to purgatory or praying to saints or Marian doctrines or other Catholic beliefs and practices that have been criticized since the Reformation. He might still disagree with Catholics on these, but he would not be able to fault a Catholic for not providing a biblical basis for them.
An Evangelical might say, “Wait a minute: If a Catholic denies the existence of purgatory, which the Church has taught infallibly, that would be a grave sin. If he did it with adequate knowledge and consent, his grave sin would become mortal, and he would lose his salvation. Thus, for a Catholic, things such as purgatory are necessary for salvation.”
It’s true that a Catholic would commit a mortal sin under the circumstances just named, but that does not make purgatory a truth “needed” for salvation. If you have mere moments to evangelize a dying man, there are certain things that he needs to be told for the sake of his salvation: the truths mentioned above about God, Jesus, and how to respond to God’s offer of salvation.
Purgatory is not one of those. Purgatory may be an imminent reality for the dying man, but it is not necessary for him to know about it in order to accept God’s offer of salvation. If he has a while to live, he should be taught the fullness of the faith, including purgatory. But if he is in danger of death, he most needs the core facts of the gospel.
Ya Gotta Have Faith
Purgatory and similar beliefs are related to salvation in a different way: The reason it would be sinful to deny them is that it involves a rejection of the virtue of faith. God has taught them and empowered the Church to propose them infallibly to the faithful. Because that has happened, our faith in the working of God demands that we give assent to them. To refuse to do so, with adequate knowledge and consent, is to reject faith in God. One might still believe in the existence of God—and any number of other individual teachings of the faith—but the virtue of faith that unites us to God is extinguished if we reject his authority to teach us in the manner of his choosing.
A parallel can be proposed in an Evangelical context: The Bible clearly teaches many things that are not directly required for salvation. For example, it teaches the existence of angels. The reality of angels is not itself something that you need to know to get into heaven.
If you have a short time to evangelize a dying man who, by some fluke, has never heard of angels, you don’t have to take time away from telling him about God to make sure he knows about angels. Angels may be about to escort him to the pearly gates, but he doesn’t need to know about them in advance. The existence of angels is thus something that Scripture teaches, but it is not a truth necessary for salvation.
But suppose the dying man knows that the Bible teaches the existence of angels but refuses to believe it. Suppose he also knows that God is the author of the Bible and that God teaches the existence of angels, yet he still refuses to believe it. Does that man have faith in God? He may acknowledge God’s existence, he may want to be saved by God, but classical Protestant theologians would not say that a man who acknowledges God’s existence but refuses to accept what he knows to be God’s word has faith in God—certainly not saving faith.
The question for the Evangelical thus remains whether such beliefs require a biblical basis. If they do require one, then we arrive back at a hard-to-defend interpretation of sola scriptura whereby everything we are expected to believe must have a biblical basis.
But what if the Evangelical really were willing to stick with the more modest interpretation? Suppose he said, “Okay, I don’t agree with Catholics on teachings such as purgatory, but I recognize that they are not necessary for salvation, so I won’t demand that Catholics produce a biblical basis for them.”
He might also say, “In Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, Paul makes it clear that a person can sin by violating his conscience even when he mistakenly believes he is required by God to do or not do something. Paul even speaks as if such individuals may not be saved. So I can acknowledge that a person who believes the Catholic Church has been authorized to teach infallibly for God would sin and jeopardize his salvation if he rejected the ‘infallible’ teachings of the Church, even if they are not necessary in themselves for salvation.
“I just want to maintain,” he might conclude, “that there must be a biblical basis for every teaching that is in itself necessary for salvation. That’s all I mean when I talk about sola scriptura. What would a Catholic say about that?”
A Catholic Perspective
I don’t know any Evangelicals who are this startlingly consistent in advocating the modest interpretation of sola scriptura.
A Catholic would not use the term sola scriptura—which is historically contentious and highly prone to misunderstanding—but he certainly can agree that the basic facts of the gospel and how to respond to it can be derived from Scripture. A Catholic would add that these facts need to be understood in the light of Sacred Tradition and that the Church’s intervention may be necessary to make sure they are understood correctly.
Indeed, Peter warns that “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (2 Pet. 1:21) and says of Paul’s writings that “there are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (3:16). But despite these qualifications, the basic facts necessary for salvation can be given a biblical basis.
It would be interesting to know how far such an Evangelical would be willing to rethink matters: If he’s willing to confine sola scriptura to just the basic facts needed for salvation, then what principles are to be employed in determining the rest of his theology?
The Catholic Church has a few he might want to consider.”
“Two divergent and opposing schools of Islamic thought emerge. One school is called the Mutazilites, whom we will call the reason party. On other side are the traditionalists, known as the Asharites, (Asharitism, aka voluntarism, occasionalism) whom we will call the irrational party.
The reason party embraces Greek philosophy and attempts to interpret Islamic revelation to fit reason. It proposes that truth can be known not only through the Quran, but also through human reason and through the consideration of creation. The irrational party sees Greek philosophy as un-Islamic. Its members insist that Allah is so transcendent that he can be known only through Islamic revelation, not reason, nor can reason uncover any truths about God.
The divide between the two parties will not only affect the future of Islamic countries, but also ultimately culminate in a full-blown revolt against reality in Western civilization…
Separating God’s will [what He chooses to do] from his nature [reason/will/wisdom/intellect/Who He is] effectively separates God’s will from His wisdom and his wisdom from creation. If God creates however He wishes, then our ability to know God through his creation is snuffed out. Everything would depend on the unknowable God’s disposition, and the only way to know that is through positive revelation. (Ed. i.e. Natural Law does not exist and God cannot be known by anything except what He strictly reveals. Creation is not indicative of God. God is just, but does not need to be just in His actions. God is good, but God does not need to be good because of His nature. God is just, but does not need to be just. God’s will takes on an extreme position even in violation of Who He is, His nature. There is no philosophy. Name your favorite Muslim philosopher?)
…The Asharites oppose [the concept of free will]. People, like the rest of creation, live under divine compulsion. God’s will makes it so. To suggest something like free will would be tantamount to claiming there is something beyond the power of the Almighty. Seeing human freedom as somehow in competition with the sovereignty of the Creator will return during the Protestant Reformation…
…Since things in the Asharite view have no nature, however, one cannot apprehend them in this way; they are only momentary assemblages of atoms…When pushed to its logical limits, God’s unbounded will destroys the possibility of science. Since God’s will does not necessarily reflect His nature, creation reflects only what an unbounded will wished to produce. A thing’s nature, therefore, has no innate power. Everything is immediately caused by God. This means that the combination of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen makes water, not because of the nature of the atoms, but because Allah wills it to be water. Allah could equally will that the combination of these same elements make a donkey or an orange…
…The laws of nature, therefore, are not effects produced by the overall structure and properties of things in the universe, but merely a pattern of occurrences that God habitually causes through his arbitrary will for reasons known only to Himself. Therefore, God [can have the appearance of] two kinds of will: one that is regular and orderly [only because He seems to will things to be in a consistent way, but could change His will at any moment] and [consequentially] another that [could seem] unpredictable [Ed. water is no longer water it at any moment because God changed His mind]. But if everything around us is a projection of God’s changeable will, then the only the thing that really exists, despite appearances, is God…
If God is the only reality; then accepting the reality of the world becomes a form of polytheism—placing the real in competition with the only real.
The expansion of Islam brought new Greek philosophical works to the Latin West, along with Islamic commentaries on them. The reception of these texts, and especially Aristotelian philosophy, was so positive that many teachers and students began to embrace uncritically everything Aristotle taught. True, Aristotle was a great philosopher, but he made some serious errors (pantheism, the uncreated eternal cosmos, all humans share one intellect, etc.). The confusion was compounded by Islamic commentators, such as Averroes, who followed Aristotle in some of these errors.
One way academics try to avoid the contradiction of embracing both Aristotle and the Faith is to adopt something called double truth (also known as hard Averroism). Double truth separates faith and reason into exclusive spheres of knowledge [Ed. i.e. faith OR reason, NOT fides et ratio, faith AND reason. Truth is truth. First principle of non-contradiction, truth CANNOT contradict truth, otherwise it is an oxymoron. There is no such thing as truth. God is truth. Wherever and however truth is or can be found, God is there and revealed in it. There is no distinction between truth and God, since God is the source and author of all truth.]
God’s Unconstrained Will
Like the irrational party (the Asharites) in Islam, according to the Franciscan [fraticelli, or] spirituals, God’s will is separated from His nature. God wills the good not because He is goodness itself, but rather because He decided to will it at that moment. Later, God could call the same thing evil…The spirituals argued that God could will that property is a good in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament, He chose to will the opposite. Ockham’s thought has striking implications: There is no immutable law or reason. Every order is simply the result of God’s absolute will and can be disrupted or reconstituted at any moment. Indeed, Ockham even maintains that God can change the past if He so desires.
According to this view, reality is not a coherent whole, like a fabric comprising individual threads woven into a tapestry. Reality is more like a computer screen made up of individual pixels. Each pixel is isolated, disconnected, and separate from the others and can change to produce different pictures on the screen.
Therefore, God’s establishment of creatures “according to their kind” is turned into a kind of fiction. Universals (like animality and triangularity, 2+2=4, etc.) are nothing more than names (Latin, nomina) we assign to things for the purpose of comprehending the incomprehensible multitude of radically individual things. For Ockham, “divine omnipotence, properly speaking, thus entails radical individualism.” By rejecting the God of reason and replacing Him with a god of will, Ockham—like the Asharites—essentially rules out the possibility of knowing God through the things He has made.
There is a deeper and more insidious implication to Ockham’s view. It opens the possibility that God can deceive us: Divine omnipotence, however, raises a fundamental epistemological problem, since it opens up the possibility of divine deception. . . . For Ockham, the idea of divine omnipotence thus means that human beings can never be certain that any of the impressions they have correspond to an actual object. Heaven and earth separated by God’s unbounded will make it impossible for us to know what anything truly is.
Ockhamism (also known as nominalism) separates God’s wisdom [intellect/reason] from His will [what He chooses to do] and God from creation, and it dissolves our ability to know what is real. [And opens up the potential for God to deceive.]
If God cannot be known through the things He has made, the only way to know the unbounded will of God is through revelation. The outward appearance of things becomes meaningless…Ultimately, our union with God is reduced to faith alone…
…Christ’s humanity isn’t denied, but it is seen as arbitrary. When Ockham’s nominalism is pushed to its logical conclusion, there can be no real (ontological) union with Christ, since Christ’s humanity is merely something God willed with no rhyme or reason. He could have assumed a nature that is radically different from our own. And if Christ’s humanity is arbitrary, then the apostolic witness of what was seen, heard, and touched is meaningless. Christ’s body—the Church—is nothing more than a name we give to a collection of similar individuals. [Ed. there is also the implication that while God could have saved in any infinite number of ways, His choosing to become human has direct implication to the redemption of humanity, and, ergo, any alternative suggests less or a lesser redemption of the children of Adam & Eve and Original Sin.]
The Moral Law
The natural law and the moral law fare no better under Ockham’s nominalism:
“The moral law is in this sense radically subordinated to divine choice and completely beyond the capacity of human reason to deduce or explain. . . . God is indifferent to what He chooses and the moral law is good not in itself but only because He wills it. Moreover, there is no limits set upon what God can demand. He can even command that we hate Him. Whatever His commandments may be, they are by definition good and binding. God’s will alone determines what is good and evil, and He is not even bound by His own previous determinations.” [Ed. a fickle, capricious god, just like the pagan gods of myth]
Lastly, nominalism ushers in a new form of radical individualism that mirrors the nominalist god. “For Ockham, individual human beings have no natural end, and there is no natural law such as Aquinas had imagined to govern human actions. Man, like God is free . . . opening up this realm of freedom not merely by rejecting the scholastic notion of final causes, but also by rejecting the application of efficient causality to men. For Ockham, man in principle is thus free from nature itself.”
The outworking of nominalism will ultimately come to full bloom in the twenty-first century with the insanity of feminism, bodily autonomy, abortion, and gender identity. The god of Ockham is the antithesis of Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. The Incarnation proposes that God’s wisdom permeates all and that His love binds us as one body.
[The Holy Roman Emperor, Louis IV, Ludwig of Bavaria, 1282-1347, begins a revolt against the papacy going so far as to invade Rome on January 11, 1328, crowning himself emperor as the pope had refused to do so.]
The pope fights back against Ludwig with the spiritual sword. He issues a series of excommunications extending down to kindred with Ludwig to the fourth degree. He also places whole countries under the interdict.
“Germany alone was under interdict for twenty years, which means that no public religious service could be held, no sacrament could be publicly administered, no bell could sound. The more often these ecclesiastical penalties were imposed, the blunter grew the spiritual sword. Inevitably the religion and morality of the people suffered serious damage, their sense of the Church was weakened, their sympathies were alienated from Christ’s vicar.
The pope also fills all the vacant sees and offices in Germany with his supporters, which fosters more alienation between the German people and the Church.
Martin Luther (1483–1546) is the son of a peasant miner. His father hopes young Martin will become a lawyer, but his direction changes at Erfurt, where he decides to study philosophy and religion. Erfurt is considered a via moderna stronghold. It is here that Luther encounters nominalism and, to a lesser extent, scholasticism…
“In his [Luther’s] later words, “Life is as evil among us as among the papists, thus we do not argue about life but about doctrine. Whereas Wycliff and Hus attacked the immoral lifestyle of the papacy, I challenge primarily its doctrine.” Or to put it in a more startling way, even if the ecclesiastical hierarchy had been exhibiting exemplary holiness at the time, Luther would, it seems, have attacked its doctrine as fundamentally flawed.”
Luther holds to the same nominalist distinction God’s unbounded absolute [unrestrained/capricious/fickle] will and His habitual ordained [according to His nature, reflecting Who God is] will. [Ed. I know the stove is hot, but I, somehow, choose to touch it anyway.]
It’s not surprising that Luther’s nominalism, as with the Islamic Asharites before him, leads to restricting our knowledge of God to positive revelation alone. This is the first step toward displacing the perpetual witness of Christ’s visible body, the Church, as the norm through which we have fellowship with God (1 John 1:1–2) with the Bible. No longer do we hear Christ by hearing the apostolic Church; we are to hear Christ solely through inspired Scripture.
HUMAN INTEGRITY AND VALUE
Faith Alone and the Body-Soul Dichotomy
Luther’s view of God also affects his view of how sinners are made acceptable to God in justification:
“The Church’s classical doctrine of grace, presents grace as a movement of divine love, entering into the penitent soul and delivering it from the bonds of its fallen nature. In contrast with this, grace in Ockhamism remains strictly transcendent. Justification consists solely in a relatio externa, a new relationship of mercy between man and God established by God’s love, by means of which all man’s religious and moral acts, though remaining in themselves human and natural, are accounted as salvific acts in the eyes of the merciful God. . . . Human activity only becomes salvific by God’s recognition of it, by his act of acceptance. But this recognition and validation does not in any way affect man’s spiritual powers. It remains completely outside him and is simply seen and assented to by faith.”
According to nominalism, God gives us the Law to follow and subsequently approves whatever moral acts we do, as He pleases—a view that comes close to denying the doctrine of original sin. Luther’s struggle to earn salvation, the nominalist way, pushes him to the point of hating God. His crisis is alleviated by reading Romans 3:28: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” The law, Luther thinks, is given to drive us to our knees in despair, knowing we can never be righteous in the sight of God and that when we place our faith in Christ, He declares or treats us as if we were righteous.
Catholicism teaches, however, that the just God wills justly. Therefore, when God calls an individual just, the individual is changed and becomes just because God’s Word is a creative Word (Rom. 5:18–19; 1 John 3:1). [Ed. That is the great distinction between the divine and the human word. The divine word creates reality in being spoken.] Being united to Christ in justification, as a branch to a vine, we bear good fruit—that is, good works that are pleasing to God (John 15:1–6; 1 John 3:7)—because it is God Who produces these good works that are pleasing to Him (1 Cor. 15:10; Eph. 3:8–10; Phil. 2:12–13).
Luther considers justification, as the nominalists do, as completely external to us: God declares us righteous even though we remain unrighteous in ourselves. Unlike Ockham, however, Luther asserts that man is incapable of doing any truly good work, since Adam’s sin utterly corrupted our nature.
By reducing justification to faith alone, we—as soul-body composites—are treated in a dichotomous way. Fidelity to God is split into two opposing camps: faith alone (i.e., trust in God’s promises) is what pleases God and justifies us, as opposed to anything we do. God accepts the soul’s assent of faith. As for our bodily acts of obedience, God either ignores them or takes offense at them.
Luther’s Contrary Truths
Since justification is an external decree of God, Luther describes those justified as being simultaneously “just and sinner” (simul justus et peccator). As Luther writes in his Lectures on Galatians (1535):
“Thus a Christian man is righteous and a sinner at the same time, holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God. None of the sophists will admit this paradox, because they do not understand the true meaning of justification.”
In this view of justification, God is said to treat us as if we were righteous and worthy of salvation even though in reality, we are unchanged (profane, sinful, damnable). The Church teaches something very different: a real transformation occurs in justification, where the sinner ceases to be a profane enemy of God and, being grafted to the New Adam (Jesus), becomes holy and righteous.
Luther’s view vaguely parallels the dualism we saw earlier with the Gnostics, whose salvation consisted of the soul discarding the materiality of the body by obtaining secret knowledge.
Where Ockham believed that man had a bestowed freedom, Luther denies free will outright, famously likening it to a beast of burden:
“If God rides it, it goes where God wills. . . . If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it.”
We saw a similar error with the Islamic irrational party, who claimed that everything except God acts under compulsion.”
-from Michuta, Gary. Revolt Against Reality: Fighting the Foes of Sanity and Truth- from the Serpent to the State (p. 77-79, 81, 83-84, 104, 108-111, 113, 118-122). Catholic Answers Press. Kindle Edition.
“Declaring that “faithful men stand up” and “speak up,” Josh Buice, the founder of G3 Ministries, argues that
we can be certain that Luther, Calvin, Knox, Tyndale and other figures of the Reformation were not making decisions about defending the faith by calculating their career advancement and protecting their platform.
Buice’s message about basing our actions upon faith, rather than political calculation, is a good one, but (with the possible exception of Tyndale, the only one of the four to die for his beliefs), he could hardly have chosen worse examples than these Protestant Reformers.
In a May 30, 1518 letter, Martin Luther wrote to Pope Leo X to insist that he wasn’t rejecting papal authority and that the accusations against him were false:
I know, most holy father, that evil reports are being spread about me, some friends having vilified me to your Holiness, as if I were trying to belittle the power of the keys and of the supreme pontiff, therefore I am being accused of being a heretic, a renegade, and a thousand other ill names are being hurled at me, enough to make my ears tingle and my eyes start in my head, but my one source of confidence is an innocent conscience.
Insisting that these accusations against him are untrue, Luther concludes the letter by promising that “my cause hangs on the will of your Holiness, by whose verdict I shall either save or lose my life. Come what may, I shall recognize the voice of your Holiness to be that of Christ, speaking through you.”
But when Leo decided against Luther in June of 1520, Luther changed his tune. Rather than recognizing the voice of the pope to be that of Christ speaking through Leo, Luther instead denounced the pope as the Antichrist, publishing Against the Execrable Bull of the Antichrist in November of that year. Before taking this step, Luther shrewdly drummed up political support. In the summer of 1520, he wrote an “Address to the Nobility of the German Nation,” playing on German nationalism, and urging the secular authorities to take greater control of the Catholic Church. Unlike his theological writings (which were in Latin), this was written in German. In the letter, Luther rejected the idea “that the temporal power has no jurisdiction over the spirituality” on the grounds that since “the temporal power is baptised as we are, and has the same faith and gospel, we must allow it to be priest and bishop.”
Therefore, he offered a number of suggestions for how secular authority could control the Church, including consolidating or abolishing religious orders like the Dominicans (“Let no more mendicant monasteries be built! God help us! there are too many as it is. Would to God they were all abolished, or at least made over to two or three orders!”); abolishing or tightly controlling the ability of the German faithful to go on pilgrimage to Rome (“Pilgrimages to Rome must be abolished, or at least no one must be allowed to go from his own wish or his own piety, unless his priest, his town magistrate, or his lord has found that there is sufficient reason for his pilgrimage”); and banning of most of the books written by that “blind heathen teacher, Aristotle.” Luther even suggested that “the temporal authorities” should convene their own ecumenical council, and if the pope should resist this secular council, “we must not respect him or his power; and if he should begin to excommunicate and fulminate, we must despise this as the doings of a madman, and, trusting in God, excommunicate and repel him as best we may.”
Protestants are free to make of Luther’s ideas whatever they will, although I suspect that the idea of turning control over the churches to secular authorities no longer sounds as attractive as it did to Luther. My point is simply that between 1518 and 1520, Luther executed a remarkable 180-degree reversal. He pledged fealty to the pope “come what may” when he thought that would benefit his cause, and when it didn’t, he denounced the pope as the Antichrist and pledged support to the worldly authorities instead.
In 1558, John Knox wrote The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women to denounce the Catholic Queen Mary. Knox denied her legitimacy as queen of England, insisting that women “may never rule nor bear empire above man,” because “woman by the law of God, and by the interpretation of the Holy Ghost, is utterly forbidden to occupy the place of God in the offices aforesaid, which he has assigned to man, whom he has appointed and ordained his lieutenant in earth, excluding from that honour and dignity all women.”
But then an awkward thing happened: Mary died, and her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I became queen. Would Knox continue his principled opposition to female empire? He would not. He quickly wrote to the unhappy queen, addressing her as “the virtuous and godly Elizabeth, by the grace of God, queen of England,” and insisting that nothing in The First Blast “is, nor can be prejudicial to your grace’s just regimen,” a reign for “which most I have thirsted, and for which—as oblivion will suffer—I render thanks unfeignedly unto God.” Elizabeth remained unmoved by Knox’s sycophancy, forbidding him from entering England.
As the nineteenth-century novelist Robert Louis Stevenson points out, John Knox (who wrote his treatise from Geneva) had first approached “his great master, Calvin, in ‘a private conversation,’” in which Calvin admitted his own position that “government of women was a deviation from the original and proper order of nature, to be ranked, no less than slavery, among the punishments consequent upon the fall of man.” Once Elizabeth acceded to the throne and Knox fell out of favor, however, Calvin wrote to her adviser Sir William Cecil to insist that he “had not the slightest suspicion” that Knox was planning to publish a book, and that “it had been published a whole year before [he] was aware of its existence.” To the Swiss Reformer Heinrich Bullinger, however, Calvin admitted that Knox “had talked over these matters with me before he came among you.” This same Calvin critiqued the Church (rightly) for allowing boys as young as ten to become bishops, yet he dedicated two of his biblical commentaries (the Commentary on Isaiah and Commentary on the General Epistles) to the boy-king Edward VI, Elizabeth’s predecessor and elder brother.
This is not to suggest that the Reformers were entirely unprincipled, but it is to suggest that there’s a reason that Tyndale was executed and the other three were not. In an age in which both Catholic and Protestant authorities were willing to violently suppress perceived heresy, men like Tyndale (and, on the Catholic side, St. Thomas More) were willing to die for what they believed. In contrast, Luther, Calvin, and Knox avoided physical suffering in no small part by ingratiating themselves to the politically powerful, even at the cost of some of their own inconvenient principles.”
“Owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation. Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic, which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally.” – St Vincent of Lérins (d. c.445), Commonitory; 2, 5-6.
“One of the most dangerous ideas of the Protestant Reformation is that Scripture is somehow self-interpreting. According to this view, Scripture is so clear that we don’t need an infallible Catholic Church. The idea originates with Luther, but Protestants often believe it’s something taught by Scripture itself. Professor John Gerstner (1914-1996) argued in favor of this view against Catholicism by saying:
First, Rome denies that the Bible is a self-interpreting revelation. The Bible declares itself to be self-explanatory. This is called the doctrine of the perspicuity of the Scriptures (the see-through-ableness of the Scripture). It may be understood in its own light. What is obscure in one passage will be clearer in another. What is incomplete here is completed there. What is a figure in one place is a commentary in another.
The claim that the Bible is “self-interpreting revelation” is not only unbiblical, but incoherent, like saying “the book reads itself.” Someone interprets the Bible. He may do that infallibly or fallibly, well or poorly, but the text doesn’t interpret itself.
We see this in action within Scripture. Jesus tells the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30). At St. Peter’s request, he then explains the parable’s meaning (vv. 36-43). The parable didn’t explain itself: Jesus explained it. Likewise, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus walks with two of his disciples and, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). St. Luke doesn’t say Scripture interpreted itself to the disciples. Jesus interpreted it.
Likewise, St. Philip was led by the Holy Spirit to an Ethiopian eunuch. “So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless some one guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him” (Acts 8:30-31). Notably, the man didn’t reply, “Of course I understand it! The book of Isaiah is self-interpreting.” Instead, someone (this time, Philip) explained its meaning.
This is the role of the Church, but it’s also the role of the theologian and the preacher. St. Paul tells St. Timothy to “attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:11). That is, he’s called to read Scripture and then to explain what it means, just as Jesus did in the synagogue (Luke 4:16-22).
So where does the Bible ever “declare itself to be self-explanatory,” or promise that “what is a figure in one place is a commentary in another”? Gerstner offers no citation for the simple reason that none exists. Even the idea that “what is obscure in one passage will be clearer in another” is question-begging, since Christians don’t agree about which passages are clear and which are obscure. As the Calvinist historian Alister McGrath explains:
Luther and Zwingli were unable to agree on the meaning of such phrases as “this is my body” (which Luther interpreted literally and Zwingli metaphorically) and “at the right hand of God” (which—with apparent inconsistency on both sides—Luther interpreted metaphorically and Zwingli literally). The exegetical optimism of the early Reformation may be regarded as foundering on this rock: Scripture, it seemed, was far from easy to interpret.
In response to the Catholic observation that Scripture needs interpretation, Gerstner says:
If the Bible must be interpreted by the Church in order to render its meaning certain, then the interpretation of the Church will have to be interpreted by another authority to make its meaning certain, and then there will need to be an interpreter of the interpreter, and so on ad infinitum.
If this were true, it would mean that no one could ever explain anything. That is, Gerstner isn’t so much arguing against Catholicism as he is arguing against communication and knowledge of the truth in general. If his argument were true, it would prove agnosticism, not Protestantism.
It’s also logically unsound. Certain passages of the Bible admit of multiple interpretations: they could mean A or B. If the Church clarifies, “It means A and not B,” that clarification doesn’t necessitate some further clarification—the argument simply doesn’t follow. If the Ethiopian needs Philip to explain Isaiah, it doesn’t follow that he must also need someone else to explain Philip, and so on ad infinitum.
But Gerstner gives his whole argument away immediately after this:
Our various Protestant church courts actually provide authoritative interpretations on most points when such decisions are necessary. But there is a difference between authoritative and infallible decisions. Compare, for example, the necessity for an authoritative interpretation of the Constitution. A Supreme Court performs that task. Yet what American believes the Supreme Court is infallible? Still, its decisions prevail as a matter of necessity. . . .
The Protestant church has provided for authority so that decisions can be rendered when necessary, but has avoided the error of investing this authority with infallibility. The Protestant church, not being infallible, can err, has erred, will err. There is one error, however, which it has not made and that is the greatest of them all—the error of thinking it cannot err.
So Gerstner actually recognizes the need for the Church to provide authoritative interpretations “when necessary.” The difference is simply that Protestant churches’ decisions can’t be trusted, because we don’t know if they’re erroneous, and they can err, have erred, and will err.
This is a remarkable concession for a few reasons. First, if Scripture is as clear and self-interpreting as Gerstner is claiming, why aren’t the Protestant teachings clear? How is it that there’s more than one Protestant denomination, and why isn’t each denomination sure that its own interpretation of Scripture is the right one? In one and the same argument, Gerstner is arguing that Scripture is so clear that there’s no need for an infallible Church to interpret it, but also that it’s so unclear that Protestants can’t escape from continually erring in interpreting it, and that the greatest error possible is thinking that we cannot err in our interpretation.
Second, the stakes here are higher than with the Supreme Court. The Constitution isn’t divinely inspired; Scripture is. If a denomination gets its “authoritative interpretation” wrong, it’s forcing its members to either go into schism or accept heresy, both of which are condemned in the New Testament. But since the “various Protestant church courts actually provide authoritative interpretations” that contradict one another and cannot be trusted as free from error, that’s precisely what Protestantism has to offer.
The fact that well-meaning and well read Protestants disagree with one another on the meaning of biblical passages should suffice to prove that Scripture isn’t self-interpreting. The fact that God gave us Scripture “to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15) should make Protestants care enough to find a Church capable of reliably interpreting what Scripture means without the constant danger that they might be endorsing heresy.”
-cf 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.”
“Steven’s first argument for why Protestants should remain Protestant begins with the claim that the “Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches associate themselves with particular teachers in a way that goes contrary to Christ’s teaching.” (2′) To defend this claim he refers (3′) to Matthew 23:8-10, where Christ says, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.”
After describing how Christ’s words applied to the Scribes and Pharisees (5′ – 9′), Steven then claims that while the Catholic Church agrees that “in the truest and ultimate sense” that there is only one teacher, namely, Christ, in practice the Catholic Church contradicts this by prioritizing “tradition to Scripture.” (9′) He adds that the Catholic Church “set[s] up teachers alongside Christ, contrary to what Christ says to His disciple.”(9′) Here he is referring to the Magisterium, namely, the Pope and the bishops in communion with him.1 Steven then claims that Catholics put bishops “alongside Christ rather than under Him as His students.” (10′-11′) He claims that the Catholic church puts forward “certain students as though they were just as reliable as the Teacher Himself, namely the holy fathers and the Magisterium of the Church when speaking under certain conditions.” (12′)
In order to explain the flaw in Steven’s argument, I need to say something first about the Catholic understanding of the relation between Scripture and sacred tradition. In the Catholic tradition we rightly approach Scripture in the Church and through sacred tradition. That is because in the Catholic tradition, Scripture belongs to the Church, and comes to us through the Church, and through the shepherds Christ has established in His Church. This relation between Scripture and the Church is illustrated by the fact that the Church determined which books belong to the canon of Scripture and which do not. Although scholars can and do study Scripture as if it is not sacred, and outside of its ecclesial context, nevertheless, as a sacred text it belongs properly to the divinely established community who received it, namely, the Church, and is understood rightly according to the tradition handed down within that community. This is a very different paradigm from the Protestant paradigm regarding the interpretation of Scripture. See, for example, my essay “The Tradition and the Lexicon.”
This paradigm difference can be seen in Tertullian’s statement that “heretics ought not to be allowed to challenge an appeal to the Scriptures, since we, without the Scriptures, prove that they have nothing to do with the Scriptures.”2 Hence as I wrote in my dialogue with Michael Horton in 2010:
Tertullian here shows that those who are not in communion with the Apostolic Churches have no right to appeal to Scripture to defend their positions, because the Scriptures belong to the bishops to whom the Apostolic writings were entrusted by the Apostles. Since the Scriptures belong to the bishops, those not in communion with those bishops in the universal Church have no right to challenge what the bishops say that the Scriptures teach. The sacred books do not belong to them, but to the bishops to whom the Apostles entrusted them. Since the Scriptures belongs to the bishops and have been entrusted to them, they have the right and authority to determine its authentic and authoritative interpretation.
In the Catholic tradition heresy is not determined by interpreting Scripture apart from Scripture and sacred tradition, and then measuring candidate doctrines against one’s interpretation of Scripture. Rather, before we even get to the interpretation of Scripture, we have to consider to whom Scripture belongs, who has the authority to determine how it is to be interpreted, and by what rule or tradition it is to be interpreted.
Now consider Steven’s argument. Steven is making use of a notion from the Protestant tradition, according to which Scripture is not to be understood through what Catholics understand as sacred tradition, to arrive at an interpretation of Matthew 23:8-10. In Steven’s interpretation of Matthew 23:8-10, based on this Protestant notion, to be a student of Christ entails not having Magisterial authority, and not having what the Catholic Church refers to as the gift of infallibility, since those two qualities would place certain students of Christ “on the same level as the Teacher.” (13′) On the basis of this notion from the Protestant tradition regarding how to approach and interpret Scripture, Steven infers that what Jesus said in Matthew 23 in criticism of the way the Scribes and Pharisees used their traditions, applies also to how the Magisterium of the Catholic Church treats sacred tradition, which, according to the Catholic Church was received orally from the Apostles and preserved in the liturgies and the writings of the Church Fathers. In this way Steven treats his interpretation of Matthew 23:8-10 as the authoritative standard by which to determine that the Catholic Church contradicts Christ, and that therefore Protestants should remain Protestant.
But Steven has not shown that Matthew 23:8-10 contradicts Catholic doctrine; he has only shown that his interpretation of Matthew 23:8-10 contradicts Catholic doctrine. The Catholic Church, and I as a Catholic, assent by faith to the authority and truth of Matthew 23:8-10, but not to Steven’s interpretation of Matthew 23:8-10. By presupposing the Protestant tradition in his hidden premise, i.e. that Scripture is not to be understood through sacred tradition, Steven’s argument presupposes the point in question between Protestants and the Catholic Church, namely, it presupposes the truth of Protestantism and the falsehood of Catholicism. His argument concludes that Catholicism is false, on the basis of an assumed premise that Protestantism is true, and that is circular reasoning. What leads him to make this mistake is not ignorance of logic, but the faulty assumption that his Protestant approach to Scripture is theologically neutral when in fact it is theologically loaded.
Later in his video Steven addresses one objection to his argument:
“Now the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic will say Christ has given authority to the teachers of the church to define dogma and to establish the limits of the faith against heretical opinion. It’s as if they were to say the teacher has given certain students the authority definitively to establish certain teachings as unquestionable. But this point has to be qualified. After all the scribes and pharisees could have claimed the same thing for themselves in response to Christ’s criticisms. It is true that the Church has the calling and the authority to define its faith but it doesn’t follow that every purported exercise of that authority is valid or true.” (16′)
Steven is correct that we should avoid credulity. But he implies here that the only way to avoid credulity is to disbelieve claims to Magisterial authority. And that conclusion does not follow from the obligation to avoid credulity. The motives of credibility give us reason to believe that God has given divine authority to the Apostles and their successors. In this way we (Catholics) are neither in a condition of credulity, since we have motives of credibility, nor rationalists, since by faith we obey God by obeying our divinely appointed leaders and submitting to them. (cf. Hebrews 13:17)
Regarding the Catholic understanding of Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, where Jesus says “whatever you bind on earth shall be should be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven,” Steven says:
“but I respond that what Christ says applies to Peter and to the Apostles since He was talking to them but not necessarily to those who come after them.” (17′)
Here again Steven is using the Protestant approach to Scripture (i.e. apart from sacred tradition), to interpret it as he thinks best, and then using that interpretation to oppose Catholic teaching regarding the authority of bishops and the Magisterium. Since he does not find in Scripture a clear prescription for apostolic succession and the continuation in the episcopal successors of the Apostles of the binding and loosing authority Christ gave to the Apostles, he concludes that the episcopal successors of the Apostles do not necessarily have this this binding and loosing authority. But in the Catholic tradition, part of what belongs to sacred tradition, through which we come to Scripture, is the insight that this authority does remain in the Church through the successors of the Apostles.3 So here too Steven’s argument is built on a hidden premise, namely, that Scripture is not to be understood through the sacred tradition. And for this reason, just as above, his argument presupposes the very point in question between Protestants and the Catholic Church.
Steven claims that the only appropriate way for the Apostles to bind and loose was by seeing what God had already bound or loosed in a public manner. (19′-20′) He gives some examples of cases where God had manifest His will, and St. Peter made ecclesial decisions based on some public and obvious manifestation of God’s will. Steven then claims that the Magisterium in later centuries did not follow this pattern. I’m going to respond to this argument under Part II below, because in Part II he goes into more detail concerning this argument.
Steven next appeals in support of his thesis to three excerpts; one from Origen, one from St. Augustine, and one from St. Cyril. First he quotes Origen:
If there be anyone indeed who can discover something better and who can establish his assertions by clearer proofs from holy Scriptures let his opinion be received in preference to mine. (23′)
Then he quotes St. Augustine:
For the reasonings of any men whatsoever, even though they be Catholics and of high reputation, are not to be treated by us in the same way as the canonical Scriptures are treated. We are at liberty without doing any violence to the respect which these men deserve to condemn and reject anything in their writings if perchance we shall find that they have entertained opinions differing from that which others or we ourselves have by the divine help discovered to be the truth. I deal thus with the writings of others and I wish my intelligent readers to deal thus with mine. (23′ – 24′)
And lastly he quotes St. Cyril of Jerusalem:
For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the holy Scriptures, nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me who tell you these things give not absolute credence unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning but on demonstration of the holy Scriptures. (24′)
Origen is here speaking in his capacity as theologian. And what he says is the correct attitude of the theologian as theologian. Origen is not denying that what has been laid down definitively in the Church by an ecumenical council can later be rejected or contradicted. Nothing he says here entails that the Catholic Church goes against Christ’s teaching, either in its teaching about the authority of the Magisterium, in its doctrine of infallibility, or in its teaching on the relation of Scripture to sacred tradition. In short, since the quotation from Origen is fully compatible with Catholic doctrine, it is not evidence that the Catholic Church goes against the teaching of Christ.
And St. Augustine too is speaking here in his capacity as a theologian; he is making no claim here, in the quotation Steven cites, against the authority of a plenary council to give a definitive decision regarding a question, or against the authority of sacred tradition. Elsewhere he appeals to the authority of the tradition distinct from Scripture.4 He appeals to the authority of the Church when speaking of the interpretation of Scripture (On Christian Doctrine 3.2). And he appeals to the authority of the apostolic tradition regarding the baptism of infants. (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, 10, 23:39; and On Baptism 4,24,32.) So again, because what St. Augustine says here is fully compatible with Catholic teaching, it does not show that Catholic teaching goes against the teaching of Christ.
As for St. Cyril, his statement is fully compatible with Catholic doctrine, because St. Cyril is affirming, as the Catholic Church does, that the content of our faith is located in the divine Scriptures; he is not denying the authority of a plenary council to definitively decide a question regarding the faith, or denying the existence and authority of sacred tradition. His exposition of the liturgy (Lecture 23) illustrates the authority of sacred tradition. He explicitly says “But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to thee by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures.” (Lecture 5) If the Scriptures were the only source of faith, then there would be no appeal to the Church when determining what does or does not belong to the faith.
Steven comes back to Origen, and quotes him again:
The holy Apostles in preaching the faith of Christ delivered themselves with the utmost clearness on certain points which they believed to be necessary to everyone, even to those who seemed somewhat dull in the investigation of divine knowledge. … The things that the Apostles did not make clear were left for the investigation of later generations. (26′)
From this quotation Steven concludes:
Thus Origen takes the explicit and clear teaching of the Apostles to be the absolute guide for all Christian theology while everything else is a matter of continual investigation and correction as he mentioned in the passage that I quoted earlier. (26′)
The problem here is that Steven’s [sola scriptura] conclusion does not follow from Origen’s statement. To see that, observe that Origen’s statement can be true and all Catholic doctrine can be true, without any contradiction. Moreover, notice what Origen says elsewhere.
The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the Apostles, and remains in the Churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth, which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition.” (On First Principles, I.2)
Origen affirms the authority of ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition, preserved through apostolic succession. So he is not claiming that tradition is not authoritative or that Scripture should be approached apart from that tradition. Hence here too Origen’s statement is fully compatible with Catholic teaching, and therefore does not show that Catholic teaching contradicts Christ’s teaching.
Next Steven tells a just-so story to explain the emergence of Catholic magisterial authority:
It seems to me that if you have a group of people who, (1) place tremendous emphasis on the unity of the group, and (2), who center the identity of their group of their community around an ambiguous and debatable topic which can produce multiple perspectives, it seems to me that with these two conditions in place you can find something like this traditionalist structure emerge. Differences in opinion compromise the evident unity of the group and people become identified with the opinions that distinguish them. But the problems of debate cannot be definitively resolved or established to everyone’s satisfaction. So self-identifying authoritative voices emerge whose word must on at least some occasions be unquestionable so that the matter is settled and the unity of the group is preserved. A procedure then is devised which will purportedly lead to the truth so long as it is followed correctly. In other words I am suggesting that the Scribes’ and Pharisees’ traditionalism is a social phenomenon that could in principle emerge anywhere as long as the conditions are right. But Christ identifies its weak point. People can confuse opinions for the things themselves, binding themselves to false ideas simply because of the purported authority of the persons propagating them, and in this way they place themselves on a harmful trajectory. The only way out of this spiral is for someone to come along and to say no, this tradition is bad and it has no authority unless what it says is true and an idea is not true because the tradition says it but rather because it is adequate to its object. But of course the traditionalist can’t hear this because in his mind the truth is too tightly bound up with the tradition and its procedures. (27′ – 29′)
Here Steven is by implicature using this sociological speculation about how authority structures arise to explain the development of Catholic ecclesial authority. This presupposes that Christ did not authorize the Apostles and instruct them to authorize successors. So here too Steven’s argument presupposes the falsehood of the Catholic position. The problem with just-so stories is that they are just-so stories. They persuade only by way of suggestion, and only if the hearer knows of no contrary evidence to the just-so story. But there is lots of evidence in the Church Fathers that ecclesial hierarchy was present from the beginning of the Church.5 Likewise, implying that Catholics “can’t hear” the truth because in our minds the truth is “too tightly bound up with the tradition and its procedures” again begs the question, by presupposing the falsehood of Catholicism.
Finally, Steven compares (by implication) the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to government bureaucracies in France and Romania. (29′ – 33′) He gives an example of a government bureaucracy getting itself into a situation requiring it to deny reality. He then claims, without any argumentation, that this is what has happened in the Catholic Church regarding doctrines like transubstantiation, Catholic teaching on Scripture and tradition, the veneration of images, Mary, and justification. I need say no more here because Steven has not here demonstrated his claim that these Catholic doctrines are not true. He has only claimed that the Church’s defining of these doctrines is like a state bureaucracy claiming that a living person is dead. And this claim presupposes the very point in question between Protestants and Catholics.”
“Steven opens his second video by summarizing his second argument:
Now my second argument for remaining a Protestant is that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches are sectarian. And what I mean by sectarian is this: I mean that in order to welcome someone into their fellowship they demand that a person assent to the truth of doctrines which are highly contentious and not obviously supported by any properly authoritative sources. (1′)
To illustrate his claim he picks three dogmas: the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the dogma of the Assumption, and the dogma defined at the Second Council of Nicea concerning the veneration of sacred images. (2′) He writes:
My argument is rather that such doctrines are highly contentious and not at all clearly supported by the most authoritative sources, and because they are not reasonably clear it is sectarian to set them up as conditions of fellowship with the Church. Scripture does not explicitly teach that Mary was conceived without original sin nor that she was assumed body and soul into heaven neither does Scripture teach that it is obligatory to venerate icons of Christ and of the saints. (5′)
He grants that these doctrines follow a trajectory set “in certain quarters.” (6′ – 7′) But he argues that these doctrines are neither clearly taught in Scripture, nor were they universally held. And therefore to make assent to them a condition of fellowship is sectarian, and thus a justification for remaining Protestant. Here, to support his point regarding the veneration of sacred images he quotes Origen regarding the practice among Christians of scorning “idols and all images.” (7′ – 8′) These three doctrines are sectarian, according to Steven, because “highly contentious and disputable points of view which cannot be established on the basis of the most authoritative sources are being put forth as non-negotiable conditions of fellowship.” (9′ – 10′) Steven then gives an uncharitable interpretation of the reasons why the Church has proposed these doctrines as dogma, saying:
Now what I think is happening is that a particular church or community of churchmen prefers its own ideas convictions and opinions so much to those of others that it is willing to exclude them from its fellowship unless they agree.” (10′)
This is an example of the bulverism fallacy, but Steven’s argument does not depend on this bulverism. He next says:
The church or community of church men in question takes itself as the standard of truth as though the mere fact that it has come to believe something is a proof that it is right. (10′)
Here Steven’s argument begs the question. His argument presupposes that the only reason the Magisterium of the Catholic Church believes these three dogmas to be true is that it has come to believe them. But in the Catholic tradition, the Magisterium has been given the promises of Christ regarding divine guidance into all truth. Steven’s argument here presupposes that the Magisterium did not receive this divine promise, among others. And in this way his argument presupposes the very point he is attempting to show, namely, that Catholicism is false.
Steven’s argument begs the question again in his following criticism of the Catholic Church:
And this can be seen in Ineffabilis Deus which says “The Catholic Church directed by the Holy Spirit of God is the pillar and base of truth.” Now note well this is not merely a citation of the words of Paul from I Timothy 3:15. It is an identification of a particular Church, namely the Church of Rome and those associated with it, as the Church. (10′)
First, Pope Pius IX is not equating the particular Church at Rome with the Catholic Church. The particular Church at Rome is a particular Church within the Catholic Church. But in Catholic doctrine schism is defined in relation to the bishop of this particular Church.6 Second, Steven’s criticism of Pope Pius’s claim to speak for the Catholic Church presupposes that the papal office is not what the Catholic Church teaches it is, and thus that Catholicism is false. So here too Steven’s argument presupposes the very point in question.
Next Steven says:
And instead of measuring its statements against the things themselves and coming to a moderate conclusion about the truth of what it says, the Roman Church takes the truth of its thoughts for granted and declares its belief an infallible dogma and a condition for fellowship. Now to my mind this is sectarian behavior. It is putting oneself forward as the criterion of truth in a matter in which one appears to have no special access to the reality of the matter.” (11′)
Notice that last line “one appears to have no special access to the reality of the matter.” Here’s the dilemma for Steven’s argument. If Steven’s claim remains at the mere phenomenological, the conclusion of his argument does not follow. If to him it does not appear that the Church at Rome has no special access to the reality of the matter, that leaves open the possibility that it does have special access to the reality of the matter, and he has not demonstrated that the teaching of the Catholic Church goes against the teaching of Christ. But on the other horn of the dilemma, if Steven claims that the Church at Rome has no special access to the apostolic deposit, or no certain charism of truth, then his argument presupposes the point in question between Protestants and the Catholic Church. Either way, his argument fails.
Regarding the Second Council of Nicea, Steven next says:
But the Council then descends into sectarianism when it continues by saying the following: “This promise, however, He made not only to them but also to us who, thanks to them, have come to believe in his name.” Now notice once more this us does not refer to all Christians but rather to these persons who have gathered at the Council and perhaps also to those who agree with them. Thus the bishops gathered at the Council take for granted without adequate reason that they are the inheritors of the original promise of divine guidance to the early Church. (12′)
Steven’s argument presupposes the very point in question when he claims that the bishops at the Council “take for granted without adequate reason that they are the inheritors of the original promise of divine guidance to the early Church.” If the bishops are what the Catholic Church teaches about bishops, and this teaching and authority have been handed down to them from the Apostles, then the bishops do have an “adequate reason” to believe that they are the inheritors of the original promise. My point here is not to establish the authority of the bishops, but only to show that Steven’s argument presupposes the very point in question, namely, that the Catholic Church is false.
Next Steven claims the following:
Of course an unwritten tradition is a word that comes from nowhere in particular and can be traced back to no one with certainty. Who can know if an unwritten tradition is genuinely apostolic?(13′)
His claim that an unwritten tradition is a “word that comes from nowhere” is not a theologically neutral claim. It presupposes the falsehood of the Catholic Church, for which there is an unwritten tradition that comes to us from the Apostles. So here too Steven presupposes the point in question. As for his question, this is not a question that baffled the early Church. St. Augustine, for example, in multiple places identifies traditions that were not clear in Scripture (e.g. infant baptism) but were universally practiced as originating from the Apostles.7
Steven next writes:
That is the attitude of a sectarian. He takes himself as the measure of truth and excludes all those who refuse to agree with him rather than putting himself on the same level as those with whom he might disagree and submitting together with them to the truth of things such as they seem.” (13′ – 14′)
Again, for reasons that by now should be obvious, Steven’s argument presupposes the very point in question. If Christ did give ecclesial authority to His Apostles, and they in turn gave this authority to their episcopal successors, and not to the laity, then when the bishops think, speak, and act as though they have this authority, this is not at all sectarian. These are rather acts of faith in Christ and obedience to Him.
Steven summarizes his argument for Part II:
So this is my argument. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches are sectarian because they impose as a condition for fellowship assent to highly contentious and debatable ideas that cannot be clearly established on the basis of the most authoritative sources. That is sectarian behavior. It is an unconditional and relentless privileging of one’s own perspective in some matter of dispute rather than simply submitting to the truth and admitting ambiguities where they where they exist. (14′)
In response, first, two of the criteria Steven is using here to determine whether the Catholic Church is sectarian are “contentious” and “debatable.” Although I could, I’m not going to argue that since the notion that these two qualities are among the criteria for determining what is “sectarian” is itself contentious and debatable, Steven’s argument is self-refuting. Rather, I’m simply going to point out again that the notion that these two qualities are among the criteria for “sectarian” is not theologically neutral, but presuppose the point in question.8 A careful study of the Arian controversy shows that for many years it was contentious and debatable. The same is true of Marcionism, Novatianism, Montanism, as well as the Donatist schism, and many others. If ‘contentious’ and ‘debatable’ were the criteria for sectarianism, there would be no schisms, only branches. But that’s not my fundamental point. The fundamental point is that Steven’s argument in Part II presupposes the very point in question by presupposing loaded (i.e. non-neutral) criteria for determining what is and is not sectarian.
Second, Steven here presupposes that the bishops’ perspective in matters of faith and morals is no more authoritative than that of any other Christian. That’s an implicit premise in his charge that the Catholic bishops are unjustifiably privileging their own perspective. But that implicit premise presupposes the very point in question between Protestants and the Catholic Church, and so Steven’s argument is question-begging.
Next Steven says:
Let me say that I agree that the Apostles and the leaders of the Church that come after them were given the authority to bind and loose but it does not follow that this authority is always exercised properly. (15′)
Steven is arguing that infallibility does not follow merely from the authority to bind and loose. But if on the one hand he is claiming implicitly that the Church did not receive the gift of infallibility, he is presupposing the point in question.9 If on the other hand he is simply claiming that sometimes bishops do not exercise their authority properly, then from this premise it does not follow that the Catholic Church is sectarian, since this weaker claim is fully compatible with the truth of Catholic doctrine.
Steven next says:
So let’s take as an example. Christ promises Peter that whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven. That is Matthew chapter 16 verse 19. Now from this perfect passive construction being used here we can discern that the binding and loosing in heaven come before the binding and losing on earth. (16′)
Here Steven is again using a Protestant approach to Scripture, according to which its meaning is determined entirely by exegesis, and not by sacred tradition. In the Catholic tradition, however, the mood and voice of these verbs does not entail that prior to the binding or loosing of something on earth, God will have already bound and loosed it in heaven. That’s because in the Catholic tradition exegesis by itself underdetermines interpretation, and Scripture must be interpreted in light of sacred tradition. My point is that Steven’s argument is here too presupposing the point in question, namely, the falsehood of Catholicism in his argument for the falsehood of Catholicism.
Now Steven comes back to the point he made in Part I, and which I mentioned above but to which I did not yet respond. Here Steven uses the examples of Sts. Peter and Paul making decisions on the basis of God having made a prior, clear and public manifestation of His will, to argue that the Magisterium can rightly make authoritative decisions only on the same basis. (16′ – 20′) That conclusion does not follow from the premise. Even if Steven’s premise is true regarding these decisions Sts. Peter and Paul made, it could still be true that the Apostles had (and the Magisterium has) the authority to make decisions without a public divine manifestation of God’s will. Here too Steven is using his own interpretation of Scripture, apart from sacred tradition, to argue against Catholic teaching concerning Magisterial authority. And that presupposes the very point in question.
Then Steven claims that “nothing like this was happening in the three cases he is considering (i.e. the two Marian dogmas, and the teaching of Second Nicea on the veneration of icons). (20′) That is, for these three dogmas, he claims that there was no prior, clear and public manifestation of God’s will, that could be verified by other Christians. But this claim that to be legitimate, Magisterial decisions must be able to be independently verified by other Christians presupposes the very point in question. Yes there is a sensus fidelium, but as Pope Benedict XVI explained, it is not “a form of ecclesial public opinion, and it would be unthinkable to refer to it to challenge the teachings of the Magisterium, since the ‘sensus fidei’ cannot truly develop in a believer other than to the extent to which he participates fully in the life of the Church, and it therefore necessitates responsible adhesion to her Magisterium.”10 As I mentioned above, Steven grants that these doctrines follow a trajectory set “in certain quarters.” (6′ – 7′) But Steven treats the development of a tradition, and what in the Catholic tradition is understood as development of doctrine, as something only arbitrary in its starting point and in its development. The Magisterium, however, recognizes and affirms authentic developments.11 And this is part of the paradigm difference between Protestants and the Catholic Church, in relation to what I’ve referred to as ecclesial deism, since believing that the Holy Spirit is the ‘soul’ of the Church leads us to expect development of doctrine, and further illumination and defining of the deposit. So by denying that the Magisterium has the divine gift by which to recognize and affirm authentic development of doctrine, Steven’s argument presupposes the point in question.
As for the development in relation to the three dogmas Steven has chosen for examples, the earlier Catholic opposition to images was never universal, never a moral consensus, and was never defined. Nor was it based on iconoclastic principle but rather on the prevalence of the pagan culture of idolatry. As that changed toward theism in the Roman empire, and as the two natures of Christ were defined at Chalcedon, the veneration of sacred images came to be seen as an affirmation of the Incarnation and its implications, in opposition to Arianism. Regarding the developments that led to the Church defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, I have briefly discussed here. And I discussed here the developments that led to the Church defining the dogma of the Assumption.
Finally Steven writes:
But I say that it is sectarian to put them forth as conditions of fellowship. To do that would be a matter of taking one’s own tradition one’s own perspective as if it were uniquely identical to the tradition of the Apostles without adequate argument than evidence. (21′)
Here too Steven’s argument presupposes that the Catholic Magisterium is not composed of the successors of the Apostles, and has not faithfully handed down the Apostolic deposit, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In short, here too Steven’s argument presupposes the point in question. As for his claim that the Catholic Church is sectarian because its contentious and debatable teachings are not “clearly supported by the most authoritative sources,” this criterion presupposes that Magisterial teaching must be “clearly supported” by Scripture. But that criteria is not itself part of the sacred tradition. The material sufficiency of Scripture is part of the tradition, but that is not the same thing as “clearly supported by Scripture.” So here too Steven’s argument presupposes the point in question.
In my opinion, Protestants often do not recognize that their arguments against the Catholic Church presupposes the very point in question because the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism is a paradigmatic difference, such that the paradigmatic nature of the difference often remains invisible.12 In the Catholic tradition, faith is not itself established by reason or evidence accessible to reason. If I could see for myself the truth of the faith, my act of belief would not be an act of faith. Hence in the Catholic tradition an essential part of the act of faith is believing Christ by believing the successors of those whom He chose and authorized to speak in His name. Through these successors we receive also the content of faith. In the Protestant paradigm, by contrast, the personal and communal is downstream of the hermeneutical, as Neal Judisch and I argued elsewhere. I hope and pray that my response here will be helpful to Steven and also serve in the task of Protestant-Catholic reconciliation.
All you Holy Saints of God, pray for us.
Solemnity of All Saints, 2021.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 100.
Liber de praescriptione haereticorum, 37.
St. Augustine writes, “if you acknowledge the supreme authority of Scripture, you should recognize that authority which from the time of Christ Himself, though the ministry of His apostles, and through a regular succession of bishops in the seats of the apostles, has been preserved to our own day throughout the whole world, with a reputation known to all.” (Reply to Faustus the Manichean, 33:9)
“As to those other things which we hold on the authority, not of Scripture, but of tradition, and which are observed throughout the whole world, it may be understood that they are held as approved and instituted either by the apostles themselves, or by plenary Councils, whose authority in the Church is most useful….” St. Augustine, Epistle to Januarius, 54:1.
See our “The Bishops of History and the Catholic Faith: A Reply To Brandon Addison.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2089.
Cf. Letter to Januarius 54.1.1. On Baptism 2.7.1 and 5.23.31.
I have addressed the charge of sectarianism in 2011 in “Ecclesial Unity and Outdoing Christ: A Dilemma for the Ecumenicism of Non-Return.”
See B.C. Butler’s The Church and Infallibility (Sheed and Ward, 1954) and Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser’s The Gift of Infallibility (Ignatius Press, 1986).
Vatican Information Service, December 7, 2012.
See comments #29 and #31 under “The Commonitory of St. Vincent of Lérins.”
I attempted to illustrate one aspect of the paradigmatic difference in “Imputations and Paradigms: A Reply to Nick Batzig.”
“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.
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)
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) [↩]
CCC 598 [↩]
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. [↩]
See ST III Q.47 a.3 ad 2 [↩]
For a fuller explanation of what Christ did for us through His Passion, according to St Thomas Aquinas, see “Aquinas and Trent 6.” [↩]
Gal 3:13 [↩]
Contra Faustus, XIV. [↩]
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. [↩]
(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.”
“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,
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, “You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP. "Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading." –St. Isidore of Seville “The aid of spiritual books is for you a necessity.… You, who are in the midst of battle, must protect yourself with the buckler of holy thoughts drawn from good books.” -St. John Chrysostom