Friday, March 26, 2010

Catholics Don't Worship Mary (And We're Not Tritheists Either)

[Virgin Mary icon]One of the most common critiques among Protestants of Catholics is that Catholics supposedly worship Mary.

This of course is untrue. All Catholics I have ever come in contact with are repulsed at the idea of worshiping Mary. "A person only worships God," they tell me. The Church's teaching is very clear that God alone is to be worshiped.

But there are, I will admit, sometimes things that I hear or see things in the Catholic Church that give me pause as a former Evangelical. Most often, I have found however, this is due simply to my own inexperience and misunderstanding.

Here's an example of how I think this works:
I have been taught that a common Muslim critique of Christianity is that it is Tritheistic. Not Trinitarian, but Tritheistic - that is, a religion that has 3 gods. This is of course untrue, we say. We believe that there is 1 God, but that he has 3 persons. 1 God, 3 persons. Simple, right? Not to a Muslim. And honestly, not simple to most people.
3 persons but still only 1 God? Sounds silly, illogical, and downright confusing. They hear us baptize people "in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit". Sounds like three gods, not one. Now, a Muslim might admit that technically speaking, most Christians will say that there is only 1 God in their theology, but in practice we can all see that most people do not understand the idea of the Trinity very well if at all, and it most likely leads to them to act more as Tritheists than Monotheists.

Islam, they say, is clearly better at avoiding this problem. It sets aside the confusing, misleading talk of a Trinity - something that does not seem to be taught as explicitly as the oneness of God in Scripture - and emphasizes very clearly that there is only 1 God. They are following the 1st Commandment of the 10 Commandments better and more clearly than we are.

So how do Christians respond to such a critique? Are we sure that there aren't some uninformed Christians somewhere who worship 3 gods instead of the 1 God?
I can't prove there aren't. But what I do know is this: although Christians are not constantly qualifying the fact that they worship only 1 God, we all know that that is what we do and that is what we mean when we speak about the 3 different persons of the Trinity. And although the idea of the Trinity might have the potential of obscuring the fact that there is only 1 God, the doctrine properly understood does not, and in my experience does not.

This, I offer, is analogous to attacks that Catholics worship Mary. Catholics do not worship Mary. They give her the honor due her place in the plan of salvation but nothing more. She was the Mother of our Lord and God Jesus Christ the Savior of the World and thus should have some special place. Catholics are not constantly qualifying this because they all know that they honor Mary, but only worship God. Sometimes, however, and probably more often than many Protestants might think, they make it very explicit how they think about Mary in relation to God.

Here is some of the Church's teaching on Mary in it's own words which make it abundantly clear that everything is about Jesus:

"There is but one Mediator as we know from the words of the apostle, 'for there is one God and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a redemption for all.' The maternal duty of Mary toward men in no wise obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows His power. For all the salvific influence of the Blessed Virgin on men originates, not from some inner necessity, but from the divine pleasure. It flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on His mediation, depends entirely on it and draws all its power from it. In no way does it impede, but rather does it foster the immediate union of the faithful with Christ."For no creature could ever be counted as equal with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer. Just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by the ministers and by the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is really communicated in different ways to His creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source.

"The Church does not hesitate to profess this subordinate role of Mary. It knows it through unfailing experience of it and commends it to the hearts of the faithful, so that encouraged by this maternal help they may the more intimately adhere to the Mediator and Redeemer.

"But [this council] exhorts theologians and preachers of the divine word to abstain zealously both from all gross exaggerations as well as from petty narrow-mindedness in considering the singular dignity of the Mother of God. Following the study of Sacred Scripture, the Holy Fathers, the doctors and liturgy of the Church, and under the guidance of the Church's magisterium, let them rightly illustrate the duties and privileges of the Blessed Virgin which always look to Christ, the source of all truth, sanctity and piety. Let them assiduously keep away from whatever, either by word or deed, could lead separated brethren or any other into error regarding the true doctrine of the Church."
(Vatican II Council, The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, paragraphs 60, 62b, 67b)

Anything good Catholics ever say about Mary is fully grounded in the goodness of God. She is who she is only because of God's incomprehensible grace that comes through Jesus alone.

Catholics don't worship Mary. They worship God.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Easter Vigil, Come and See Us!

Hello everyone,

No new post this week, just too much going on with school. But I thought I could take this as an opportunity to invite you all to see my wife and I be fully received into the Catholic Church. We were both baptized as infants, so we'll be receiving the sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist.

St Michael's Catholic Church
318 West Illinois Street, Wheaton, IL
This is a short walk from Wheaton College's campus, just on the other side of the tracks in downtown Wheaton. (Here's a picture of St. Mike's -->)

April 3rd, Easter Vigil

All are welcome and would be appreciated! Whether you know us or not, find us afterward to say hello.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

When The Church Is Fallible: Why Protestants Can't Account For The Canon

The Bible was not given to us in full all at once. God chose to work through dozens of human authors to write the books of the Bible over the course of hundreds of years. The Bible - the unified whole of God's speech committed to writing - is the compilation of these writings.

But how does one know which writings are divinely inspired and thus are supposed to be included in the Bible in the first place? I believe that Protestants cannot adequately answer this fundamental question because they reject the idea of an infallible church.

Remember, Protestants hold to sola scriptura. For them, Scripture itself is the sole highest and final authority on all matters pertaining to theology. They reject the idea that there exists a living Church teaching authority. Instead, as Protestants understand it, the church - which is usually defined as merely the aggregate of all individual Christians worldwide - is always capable of mistakes. In other words, Protestants believe that Scripture is infallible but that the church is fallible.

But there is no passage in the Bible which lists the names of all the writings that were inspired by God and should be regarded as Scripture. Even if there was, how could a person be sure that that particular list was authoritative anyway?

Some books in the Bible will refer to other books in the Bible as Scripture. But not all books that Protestants regard as Scripture are cross-referenced by other books. And even if they were, that particular collection of writings would still be a closed system that a person would have to have a reason to accept as Scripture in the first place.

This means that one must discern the canon through outside criteria. Many Protestants realize this and have put forth various sets of criteria as to how to discern the canon. 
Here is one such criteria put forth by John Calvin in the French Confession of Faith, Article IV (1559):
"We know these books to be canonical, and the sure rule of our faith, not so much by the common accord and consent of the Church, as by the testimony and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit, which enables us to distinguish them from other ecclesiastical books..."
Here is another set of criteria which has become common among Evangelicals for supporting the canonicity of the books of the New Testament: (1) the book can be attributed to an Apostle or the close companion of an Apostle with a high degree of certainty, (2) the book was accepted by all major Christian communities early in the Church, (3) the book was used by the early Church regularly during meetings, and (4) the book's teaching harmonizes with other books accepted as Scripture.

There are two major problems with any sort of sets of criteria like these.
First, how can we be sure that any criteria is the right criteria to use? 
Second, how can we be sure that we have applied the criteria correctly?
If the church is indeed fallible, then it is always an open possibility that it has made mistakes in either of these areas. 

Now, if its possible that the church has made mistakes in choosing and/or applying criteria for a book being canonical, doesn't this imply that the canon is perpetually open for correction or adjustment?  What if the Holy Spirit seems to be leading people today to believe that a particular book shouldn't be in the canon anymore? Or maybe we'll discover through careful study that a particular book's theology actually contradicts the teachings of the other books (for example, Martin Luther thought this was true regarding the New Testament book of James and argued that it should be removed from the Bible, along with HebrewsJude, and Revelation).

The last way that a Protestant might try to argue that the canon of Scripture is definitive is by asserting that the Holy Spirit infallibly guided the church into adopting the correct canon. This might seem workable at first, until one remembers again that Protestants hold sola scriptura and therefore reject the notion that the church is normally infallible in any way whatsoever. This means that this would have to be counted as some sort of an exception - a very convenient, and might I say completely ad hoc, exception. And even if this was the case, since Protestants reject the notion of apostolic succession, what means did God use to have the the church make such an infallible decision? Where was it made and by whom? How would one even go about determining where and when such a decision was made? And if we think that the church is trustworthy in discerning the canon, why is the church then incapable of infallibly interpreting that very canon?

It's clear that if you're a Protestant and believe that the church is fallible, but still want to believe that the canon of Scripture is infallibly definitive, you are contradicting yourself.

The Catholic Church has a coherent, workable, and relatively simple answer to this problem: the Church is infallible. The Catholic Church is, and has been, able to accurately and definitively discern which writings are inspired and which ones are not through its Holy Spirit guided living apostolic authority - the same authority that settled questions regarding the Trinity, the dual-nature of Christ, the nature of justification, the nature of the sacraments, etc.

Because they have rejected the idea of an infallible Church teaching authority in accepting sola scriptura, Protestants cannot account for why they accept so firmly the canon of Scripture that they do.

*I have argued for other ways that sola scriptura is highly problematic in my previous blog posts How Sola Scriptura Leads to Pluralism and Sola Scriptura Isn't Scriptural.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Heresy Has Always Been An Option

Anyone who studies Church history eventually realizes that all orthodox Christians before the Reformation were Catholic (the exception of Eastern Orthodoxy notwithstanding). Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and even the most beloved Francis of Assisi were all Catholic, and devout ones no less.

I've often heard Protestants who admire such figures explain away their Catholic allegiances and beliefs with the excuse: "Well of course, all Christians were Catholic at that time; there weren't any other options."

The only problem with this is that there were other options.
There have always been groups outside of the Catholic Church that called themselves Christians. It's easy to forget this since we normally refer to all non-Catholic pre-Reformation groups as heretics.

The Arian Christological controversy of the 4th century will serve well as an example of my point.
In A.D 313, a young man named Arius was ordained a presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt. He was known as an ascetic, an intellectual, and as a charistmatic personality. Soon after, he began his teaching which would eventually envelope the whole of the Roman Empire in controversy and violence. He taught that the Son and the Father were not of the same substance and that the Son was actually a creation of the Father. Jesus was the greatest of God's creations, but he was not God himself. This was in opposition to Trinitarianism, the belief that God is one and yet three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all co-eternally sharing the same substance.

Arius called himself a Christian and sincerely believed himself to be a faithful one at that. He believed the Holy Scriptures and based his theology on them, believing that he was faithfully interpreting them.
Large numbers of people joined him in his theology. I have heard it estimated that there was a time when a majority of professing Christians were Arian.

Large numbers of sincere, Bible-believing Christians disagreed fundamentally on who Jesus was. This caused widespread disunity, ill-will, and at times even violence throughout the empire among Christians. The Emperor Constantine, seeing that this controversy was hurting the empire, asked the Church to convene a council of all the bishops in the world to settle the issue. Bishops from throughout the whole world met in the city of Nicaea (in present-day Turkey) to make a ruling. After much debate, a majority of the bishops ruled that Arianism was heretical and that Trinitarianism represented true orthodoxy as passed down from the Apostles.

But Arianism continued on after the Council. Arius and his followers believed that the Council was wrong and had endorsed an unScriptural position. Arianism continued to exist in parts of Europe for three centuries until roughly the 7th century (though there have been some modern day revivals of it).

So who was really orthodox and who was heretical? Both Trinitarians and Arians considered themselves to be Christians, based their doctrines on Scripture, and believed they were following true Christian teaching. 
And yet no Christians today hold up good Arian theologians as examples of good Christians of history. Why is that? 
Because Arianism is heresy. And we know it's heresy because the Council of Nicaea, with the apostolic authority of the Bishops convened at it, ruled that it was heresy. Arianism is called heresy by us today because it was theology that was rejected by the Apostolic Church.

There have always been groups of self-identified Christians living in opposition to the Apostolic Church. But because they weren't with the Apostolic Church, we look back on them as heretics. All the greats of Christian history weren't Catholic by default. They would be Catholic today for the same reason they were Catholic in their own time: because they believed that the Catholic Church is God's true Church with it's authority established personally by Jesus.

Augustine himself, whom many Protestants try to claim as their own, was the Bishop of Hippo and wrote the following as to why he was a part of the Catholic Church rather than a competing "Christian" group:
"[T]here are many other things which most properly can keep me in [the Catholic Church’s] bosom. The unanimity of peoples and nations keeps me here. Her authority, inaugurated in miracles, nourished by hope, augmented by love, and confirmed by her age, keeps me here. The succession of priests, from the very see of the apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after his resurrection, gave the charge of feeding his sheep [John 21:15–17], up to the present episcopate, keeps me here. And last, the very name Catholic, which, not without reason, belongs to this Church alone, in the face of so many heretics, so much so that, although all heretics want to be called ‘Catholic,’ when a stranger inquires where the Catholic Church meets, none of the heretics would dare to point out his own basilica or house." (Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus 4:5, A.D. 397

There were other options. They just were heresy. 

*Note: The Catholic Church does not consider Protestant groups today to be heretics. Instead, Protestants are considered to be "separated brethren" who, by virtue of their baptism, are properly called Christians and are actually considered to be partially a part of the Catholic Church, although they do need to move towards full communion in the Catholic Church if they wish to be living fully in God's will for his followers. For more, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 817-822 as well as the Vatican II document Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen Gentium) sections 14 and 15.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Sola Scriptura Isn't Scriptural

In a previous post, I argued that Sola Scriptura leads to pluralism.

But it gets worse. Sola Scriptura, which literally means "Scripture alone", is itself not scriptural.

Some might point to 2 Timothy 3.16-17 as an example of where sola scriptura is taught by Scripture:
"16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."
It should be noted that much of the New Testament has not been written at the time of this letter. Paul is then referring to the Old Testament Scriptures and possibly a few apostolic writings regarded as Scripture that would later be compiled into the New Testament. Thus, if one takes the word "thoroughly" to mean that Scripture is the only thing that one needs for "teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness", then most of the New Testament becomes unnecessary. Paul here is saying here that Scripture is useful for a person to become thoroughly equipped, but is not saying that Scripture is the only thing that is useful. For isn't preaching useful? Aren't spiritual disciplines useful? Isn't discipleship useful? Isn't confession useful? Isn't even personal experience sometimes useful? Of course, all of these things are useful. The Scripture, already in existence as Paul is writing this letter, as well as the Scripture that was later written, is a very important part of a person following Christ.

Suffice it to say, it's difficult to prove this negative except to say that the doctrine of sola scriptura is simply nowhere to be found in Scripture.

But I can show you where the opposite is found in Scripture:
"So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter." (2 Thessalonians 2.15)

Paul is saying that those at the church in Thessalonica should "stand firm and hold to" all of his teachings, whether communicated to them orally or in a written form. Clearly, Paul is affirming the authority of his teachings even if they are not written down. His apostolic authority was not only effective when he wrote something down. It was also effective when he spoke to them. Paul does not say, 'Test everything I say by what I write, because only my writing is inspired by God and is authoritative.' No, he tells them to follow his teachings transmitted in both forms.

Also, remember that Jesus himself, the full manifestation of God's revelation to humans, didn't actually write anything down. Everything we know about Jesus has been passed on to us in some way.

Catholics refer to what has been passed on orally from the apostles as Tradition (not to be confused with a tradition, which is a man-made custom that develops over time; see end of post for more). Some try to place Tradition in opposition to Scripture, often wondering which one supersedes the other. Catholics, it is claimed by Protestants, place Tradition above Scripture, while Protestants supposedly place Scripture ahead of Tradition - if they recognize Tradition to have any place at all in theology. The issue of whether Tradition is above Scripture or vice versa is only a question if one assumes that they ever contradict.
The true Catholic teaching sees no opposition here because Catholics view Tradition and Scripture as simply two different means by which the whole Word of God has been passed down.

Here is part of the Church's teaching on this issue in her own words:
"In keeping with the Lord's command [to preach the Gospel], the Gospel was handed on in two ways:
orally 'by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received—whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit' (DV [Dei Verbum], 7);
in writing 'by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing.' (DV, 7)" (CCC [Catechism of the Catholic Church], paragraph 76)
The equality of Scripture and Tradition is also clearly affirmed by the Catholic Church:
"Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing and move towards the same goal"
"Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence."
(CCC 80, 82; DV 9)

The Church recognizes the importance of believing in Tradition in order to make sense of early Christianity:
"The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus' teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition." (CCC 83a)

Included in Tradition are not new revelations, but only that which has been passed on from the Apostles:

"Throughout the ages, there have been so-called 'private' revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.
Christian faith cannot accept 'revelations' that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such 'revelations.' " (CCC 67)

Lastly, in the comment section of a previous post, I accused a commenter of confusing the Tradition with traditions. This is what I meant:
"Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church's magisterium." (83b)

Sola scriptura is simply nowhere to be found in Scripture. It is a man-made tradition invented in the Reformation. In fact, Scripture itself explicitly teaches against sola scriptura. The Church's understanding of Tradition is not that Scripture is ever superceded or corrected by Tradition, but that they both form the one, authoritative, infallible Word of God.