Monday, June 28, 2010

What Evangelicals Teach Us: Evangelism

I once heard the topic of evangelism mentioned to a room full of Catholics. It was met with laugther. They weren't laughing at the idea of evangelism, but laughing at the fact that it's something they don't do.

There seems to be a culture among American Catholics that not only doesn't encourage but seems to even, at times, discourage evangelism. We're scared of offending people or turning them off. We don't want people to think we're...those evangelical protestants.

Yes, evangelicals can have a bad reputation for how they share their faith. 
But that's (at least partially) because they are out there doing it. The gospel is offensive. The life of Jesus is enough proof of this. And so, knowing this, he gives us encouragement: ""Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Mt 5.11-12)

Let us be reminded that, as was the case with the Bible, it is 
to the Catholic Church that God has entrusted the Gospel. It is our job, by God's grace, to bring it to the world as effectively and accurately as possible. The Church reaffirmed this duty of all the faithful in her Vatican II council when she  wrote: "every disciple, as far in him lies, has the duty of spreading the faith" (Ad Gentes, 23)

And so I ask: Are we sharing our faith? Do we really believe that every single person on the planet desparately needs the Gospel? Do we believe the Holy Scriptures when they say: "Salvation is found in no one else [but Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4.12, my emphasis)? Do we believe Jesus when he said: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (Jn 14.6, my emphasis)?

Another group has claimed the title 'evangelical'. Let us reclaim it. Let us be inspired by our evangelical brothers and sisters and take seriously the duty of sharing with the world the good news of Christ.

Note: Whenever a person criticizes the Church, he should be careful. It's Christ's Church afterall! I do not intend these criticisms to apply to everyone or even necessarily the Church worldwide, but primarily to my experience of the Church in the US.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

What Evangelicals Teach Us: Knowledge of Scripture

While I was a student at a Catholic high school, I had an interesting conversation about theology with the school's priest. When I quoted several verses of Scripture from memory in the discussion, the priest half-jokingly remarked, "Oh, you know the Scriptures. You must be Protestant." (which was true at the time)

I have written many posts on this blog that criticize protestantism - evangelicalism in particular. But if all I ever wrote was negative, it would inaccurately represent what I really think - and what the Catholic Church thinks. Don't get me wrong. I became Catholic for a reason. I joined the Catholic Church because I believe her to be the Church established by Christ himself, the new Ark in which all must be to be saved.

This, however, does not mean that the Church is perfect in practice or that non-Catholics are wrong in everything they do. All non-Catholics have something to teach us.

Since I have written many posts explaining how I think evangelical protestants have it wrong, I'd like to spend the next few posts pointing out ways that Catholics can learn from evangelicals.

And the first thing is this: lay evangelicals tend to know their Bible much better than lay Catholics.

Evangelicals have an incredibly deep passion for the Scriptures. They read it everyday. They study it fervently. They memorize it, often with the chapter and verse references. Many parents lead family devotionals and read the Scriptures to their children. They work hard to follow it as closely as they can in all that it teaches. It's hard to have a conversation with an evangelical about their faith or leave an evangelical church without knowing that they are passionate about the Bible.

This is lacking on a large scale throughout the Catholic Church. This does not mean that no Catholics know the Scriptures. Many Catholics are familiar with the Scriptures, but many are not. Many Catholic Churches do not encourage people to better learn the Scriptures - or at least do not provide effective ways for it. I once knew a Catholic who, in addition to attending Mass every Sunday, would also attend a local evangelical church to benefit from the preaching. I've heard countless stories of people raised Catholic who left the Church for an evangelical church because it was there that they first were shown the riches of the Holy Scriptures.

This, quite frankly, is embarassing and sad.

For, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures were produced by the Church, canonized by the Church, and preserved by the Church. And only the Church is the authoritative interpreter of the Scriptures. Yet we have allowed others to become known as being the most zealous for the Scriptures.

Fortunately, the Church is reforming itself. The bishops of Vatican II remembered that the Church's Tradition gives highest importance to knowing the Scriptures by quoting the 4th century Church Father Jerome: "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ." And they exhorted all the faithful accordingly: "The sacred synod...earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful...to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the 'excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ' (Phil. 3:8)" (Dei Verbum, 25)

But such reforms are only necessary because we the Church have not been faithful to our duty to effectively teach the Holy Scriptures to the people of God. Let us repent and, in this matter, humbly learn from our separated brethren.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Making It Up

Most evangelical churches, especially non-denominational ones, don't have anything that comes close to comparing to the depth and breadth of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Most groups have a "What We Believe" section on their website with a few points. Here are links to the statements of belief of some of the most influential evangelical churches in the US: Saddleback Church (Pastor Rick Warren, Lake Forest, CA), Lakewood Church (Pastor Joel Osteen, Houston, TX, church pictured below), Mars Hill Bible Church (Pastor Rob Bell, pictured on left, Grandville, MI)  Eagle Brook Church (Pastor Bob Merritt, Lino Lakes, MN).

None offer a developed Christology or Trinitarian theology.
None explain their views on the relationship between God's sovereignty and human free will.
None explain their view regarding gender roles, or the lack thereof, in their church or in society.
None state what they believe about any major social issues, such as abortion (or the death penalty, or euthanasia, or war, etc), let alone why they believe what they do or offer a consistent system with which to judge other ethical matters.
None of them even list out which books they accept as the Bible.

I could go on.

(Amazingly, many evangelicals think that this is a good thing, that they have avoided the dangers of dead theology.)

But here is my question: What do they believe on all of these issues, as well as many others? If an issue isn't mentioned in their statement of faith, is it open for disagreement? (If so, are all of the issues I listed above open for disagreement in those churches?) How does the pastor know what to preach on Sundays? Of course, they want to preach the Bible. But the teacher's job is to interpret. That's why churches have teachers in the first place. Churches could just have someone read Scripture aloud every Sunday in place of the sermon. We have teachers to give us the interpretation. Theology is complicated. It's not always immediately obvious what the Bible teaches on a given issue. Someone needs to bring it all together.

So, with nothing guiding their interpretations (at least officially), the pastors make it up. They might think within a theological tradition, or decide to draw from several (who knows?), but they ultimately just give their own personal interpretations.

Let's say you have a question about one of the many things not covered in the church's statement of faith on their website. You go to your pastor for an answer. The pastor might have an opinion, he might not. He might be somewhat educated on the issue, he might not. There might be disagreement within the leadership of the church on the issue. It might be something that no one in the church had even talked about yet.

Let's say you get an answer. What if that particular pastor retires or leaves? The new one says he agrees with the church's written statement of faith, but he might disagree with what the previous pastor taught that isn't in the statement of faith. I guess the church teaches something different now.

Churches are placed at the whims of whoever happens to be teaching in them.

I anticipate two objections.
(1) Catholic priests don't always preach in line with what the Catholic Church officially teaches. This is true. But at least the Catholic Church has a foundation, something solid, something with which one can judge whether a priest is teaching what he is supposed to be teaching. Most evangelical churches lack this almost entirely.

(2) Someone could point out that the Catechism of the Catholic Church may cover a lot but does not cover every possible issue either. The Catholic Church and evangelical churches simply disagree how much of their beliefs need to be worked out in advance. The difference between the Catechism and the statements of faith of evangelical churches is a matter of degree, rather than kind. This is also true. But I have two responses. First, the difference is so overwhelming and has such major consequences as to practically be a difference in kind. Second, the Catholic Church has a means - at least theoretically with its claimed apostolic authority - by which to determine what teaching needs to be made explicit and definite and what doesn't. Evangelical churches don't even claim to have a way to determine what teachings should or shouldn't be made explicit and definite. Whoever founded the church or whoever happens to be in charge just decides.

In other words, they make it up.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Mariology Is Christology

An evangelical friend once asked me why within Theology (the study of God) Catholics have a branch of study called Mariology (the study of Mary - a creature). We don't include Biology or Physics within Theology. Studying Mary within Theology seems only to be a misplaced distraction from the focus of Theology, which is God.

The answer: Mariology is included within Theology because everything the Church teaches about Mary is based on Jesus.

Here is an important quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this very issue:
"What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ." (CCC 487)

Here is an example of how this works:

In the early 5th century, a simple question regarding Mary stood at the epicenter of a major theological battle: Can Mary be called the Mother of God?

Cyril (left), Patriarch of Alexandria, taught that, since Jesus was fully divine, Mary rightfully had the title of Mother of God.

Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, believed that this was blasphemy. For God has no mother! Mary can be called the Mother of Christ, but she cannot be called the Mother of God.

In A.D. 431, a great council of bishops was convened in Ephesus to settle the matter. After heated debate, the bishops concluded that Nestorius' view implied a heretical split within Jesus' identity. For Mary gave birth to a person. If Mary only gave birth to a human person, but not a divine person, then there is a split between Jesus' humanity and divinity. And if there is a split between the two, then Jesus is not both fully human and fully divine, and the gospel is lost. The council ruled that instead of there being two persons within Jesus, a divine person and a human person, the one person Jesus had two natures, a human nature and a divine nature.

And since the one person, Jesus, was truly both fully human and fully divine, it was accurate to call Mary the Mother of God. So contrary to what Nestorius had taught, it was not only actually blasphemous to say that Mary couldn't be called the Mother of God, it was also actually glorifying to God by illuminating the great mystery of the Incarnation!

Thus was settled one of the most important Christological controversies in the history of the Church. A simple question regarding Mary's identity was really a Christological question with implications at the heart of the gospel itself.

Mariology is really Christology.


*Note: The disputed title of Mary is theotokos in Greek, which literally means 'God-bearer' - that is, 'bearer' in the sense of bearing a child. In English, it is often simply translated 'Mother of God'.