Phantom Petrine pillars
What if, Catholic friend, the impermeable structure the Church declares is founded on the apostle Peter as its Roman pontifical rock, in truth has merely a phantom foundation?
As I indicated last time, the Roman Catholic Church’s claim to supreme authority in Christendom stands or falls on her being able to locate evidence of that authority to the first, or at the very least, the second century. But she cannot find any before the late fourth. By then she had the backing of the Roman emperor, but previously, when some bishops of Rome had acted the part of a pompous pontiff, their fellow bishops from other Christian outposts had to restrain and correct them.
You’re not likely to find any of this in the Catholic literature, but the evidence calls to us from the pens of the early church fathers, if we would only heed and read. The same fathers that the Roman Church cites as supportive of her unique and supreme authority, when read in context support nothing of the sort. Clement, Polycarp, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others only say what Rome wants to hear when Rome employs selective hearing.
The writings we have from the sub-apostolic fathers are literally voluminous, and I have only just begun to read them. I am indebted to another blogger at whitehorseblog.com for pointing me to a number of selections which paint a rather different picture than the one the Catholic Church would have us see. I will highlight just a few in this post and encourage you to read his series on the subject beginning here, and also the church fathers themselves (see my links below).
The Roman Catholic resource Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, in its section on the primacy of the see of Rome, puts forward as evidence that Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, “negotiated” with Victor, bishop of Rome regarding when to celebrate Easter. (1) Victor threatened to excommunicate all the churches who disagreed with him but the ancient historian Eusebius records Polycrates refusing to submit to a fellow bishop who had no authority over him or his church, writing to Victor that he is “not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said ‘We ought to obey God rather than man.’” (Book 5, Ch.24, 7) Eusebius goes on to say that Victor’s attempt at subjugation “did not please” the other bishops. “And they besought him to consider the things of peace, and of neighborly unity and love. Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor.” (par. 10)
The same resource references another disagreement the bishops dealt with when Stephen was bishop of Rome. They cite “the testimony of Bishop Firmilian of Caesarea” claiming he “maintained” that Stephen possessed “the succession of Peter, on which the foundations of the Church are erected.” (1) They reference the Epistles of Cyprian 75, paragraph 17, but it’s actually from 74, and the complete quote and context give a completely opposite picture. Firmilian says, “And in this respect I am justly indignant at this so open and manifest folly of Stephen, that he who so boasts of the place of his episcopate, and contends that he holds the succession from Peter, on whom the foundations of the Church were laid.” Earlier in this letter from Firmilian to Cyprian he says, “But that they who are at Rome do not observe those things in all cases which are handed down from the beginning, and vainly pretend the authority of the apostles.” (74, 6)
Catholic resources and apologists depend greatly for their “evidence” of Rome’s primacy on how her bishop is referenced by the early church fathers, reading into seemingly exalted addresses a recognition of her supreme status. Like this evaluation of Ignatius’ opening sentence in his letter to the Romans, “He speaks to the Church at Rome rather as she who ‘προκαθημένη τῆς ἀγάπης’ (presides in/over love). This seems to be an indication of his recognition of the primacy had by the Church at Rome, even among the three apostolic Churches, since he himself was the bishop of the Church at Antioch.” (Bryan Cross, St. Ignatius of Antioch on the Church) But as Tim at whitehorseblog.com points out, “But if Rome only “presides over love,” then what abject submission, adulation and worship is due to the church at Magnesia whose “bishop presides in the place of God“!? (Ignatius of Antioch, to the Magnesians, chapter 6) No other bishop is described this way.”
The Roman Catholic Church plainly misrepresents her origins in order to assert and maintain the authority she succeeded in capturing in the late fourth century but was not hers at all in the first three. The writings of the early church fathers are many and wading through them can be difficult, but the truth can be found in them for anyone willing to look.
(1) Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, TAN Books, Charlotte, NC, pg. 284
I’m afraid you’re beating a straw man, Caroline. The premises you are presuming are the Catholic foundations for Petrine primary are not actually premises. The evidence you are presenting is nothing new to Catholic scholars — Ludwig Ott himself presents it! No one supposes that a pope can’t have been a jerk (as was Victor) or a fool (as was Stephen) or a sinner (as was every pope who ever lived). Nor it is supposed that everyone always agreed with the pope or that he never had his opponents.
It is well acknowledged that the bishop of Rome did not command the kind of hierarchical authority in the first centuries of the Church that the pope is given today. This is a late medieval development. All that is supposed is that the bishop of Rome, from the beginning, was given deference as “first among equals,” for the sole reason that (to quote Irenaeus) his Church was “founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul” (Against Heresies III.3.3). The existence of this view toward Rome in the Early Church has a lot of evidence (Irenaeus’s statement is the most convincing to me), not just a few pieces that can be attacked with a fork.
I have read the Church Fathers pretty extensively. They led me to Catholic Church, not away from it. Certainly the Fathers do nothing at all to support the claims of Evangelicals.
I think I’m going to have to avoid your blog. If I don’t, I’m going to spend way too much time replying to you, at a time when I have school and work to contend with. You probably don’t appreciate having such a contrary voice at your heels anyway. The peace of the Lord be with you!
[And also with you, I’m tempted to say…but I won’t…but I just did]
The character of any particular early century bishop of Rome is not really the issue here. The issue is whether or not they were considered to have primacy over the entire church and the responses of other bishops to Victor’s and Stephen’s presumption of authority is evidence that they did not consider him to have primacy. At the very least, it does not support Rome’s claim that they did.
If Irenaeus believed the bishop of Rome had supreme authority over the entire church, would he have “sharply rebuk[ed]” and “admonish[ed]” “Pope” Victor regarding his attempt to excommunicate all those who disagreed with him on when to celebrate Easter? (Eusebius, Church History, Book V, chapter 24, 10-11) Eusebius also records in paragraph 18 of the same book and chapter that Irenaeus “conferred by letter about this mooted question, not only with Victor, but also with most of the other rulers of the churches.” This is one of the many evidences in Eusebius and the early church fathers that no one bishop or church had primacy.
In Against Heresies Book 3, Irenaeus argues that the truth can be found in any of the churches because of their apostolic origin, in opposition to the heretics who were asserting that the apostles handed down contrary teaching orally. He appeals to the Scriptures as that which unites and nourishes the church and serves as her foundation (Against Heresies, Book III, chap.1, par.1 and Book V, chap.20, par. 1-2), not a pope or magisterium. And in defense of the church united’s position that she, in each apostolically-established local congregation, holds and teaches what the apostles actually believed and taught, he says in chapter 1 of book 3 that, “we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about.”
But since “it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this,” he says, to do that for all the churches, he chooses to establish apostolic succession for the church at Rome only because of her uniqueness and privilege as having been established by “the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul.” This gave her preeminence in history but not authority. The translation of the last sentence in paragraph 2 is disputed, but Berington & Kirk, in The Faith of Catholics, (vol. I, 2nd ed. New York, 1885, 248) have “pre-eminent authority” as “potent principality.” But even if the correct translation is exactly this…
For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.
…it seems most probable to me that Irenaeus is simply establishing that if apostolic doctrine can be found anywhere, it can be found in the church that Peter and Paul founded. So the faithful churches around the world will also be found teaching that same doctrine.
Interestingly, it is right here (as well as elsewhere) in paragraph 3 that Peter being the first “pope” is denied.
3. The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric.
1. Linus, 2. Anacletus, and 3. Clement.
You say there’s a “lot of evidence” in the early church for the view that Rome had primacy. What else do you have?
Once again, your presumption that the bishop of Rome had, or even pretended to, “supreme authority over the entire church” at this time in history is an anachronism and a straw man. The role of the bishop of Rome that is manifest in these early centuries, and that even the Orthodox bishops continue to acknowledge in theory, is that of “first among equals,” of the prime or foremost bishop to which all other bishops should look for guidance. You are attacking something (a presumption of supremacy over the whole church) that did not exist and is generally not claimed to have existed (by responsible historians). You are presuming that because you can show such didn’t exist, you are undermining the whole claim of primacy. You are not.
I actually think the responses of various bishops to early bishops of Rome are very telling. Again, the primacy of the bishop of Rome as “first among equals” does not imply that he was at any point beyond rebuke by other bishops — or is even now. When Victor excommunicated the eastern bishops over the quartodeciman controversy — rather than simply shun him, excommunicate him back for such an overreach of authority, say, “Fine, we just won’t talk to you anymore,” which would have been the situation if your theses are true, that each of these churches was independent of each other and there was no primacy of any bishop over any other — there was an ensuing crisis among all the bishops. Many bishops wrote to him, not denouncing him for pretension, but urging him to reconsider his decision — as if he had standing to make such decision. They challenged his actions, not his authority to take such actions. Irenaeus “recommends that the mystery of the Lord’s resurrection be observed only on the Lord’s day, yet nevertheless exhorts Victor suitably and at length not to excommunicate whole churches of God for following a tradition of ancient custom.” He recommends, advises, a better way to consider the situation, and exhorts him to reconsider his decision.
Now, it’s true that none of this indicates that the Church was a monolithic entity (it wasn’t), that Victor excommunicating the Asian bishops meant per se that they were “excommunicated from the Church”: it meant that they would no longer be in communion with the Church and bishop of Rome. But evidently the rest of the bishops considered communion and agreement with Rome a matter of great importance — per Irenaeus’s statement in Against Heresies, and his account here also of the blessed Polycarp journeying to Rome to discuss the matter with the bishop there. The very fact of his visit, that he saw the need to make it, implies that Rome was seen to have a central role even in Polycarp’s time and that unity with Rome was seen to be essential.
I think you are missing the whole context of Irenaeus in Against Heresies. I would sum up his argument at the beginning of Book III by these points (this chapter numbering from the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Roberts, Donaldson, Coxe, eds.):
1. We have learned the truth of the Gospel from the Apostles themselves, preaching first in public, and later writing this down in Scripture. The fact that they wrote their teachings down in Scripture later rather than first countermands the argument of the Gnostics that it was only later in life that they came to the “secret knowledge” (gnosis) which the Gnostics asserted (Book III, Chapter 1).
2. When the heretics are confuted from the Scriptures alone, the reject the Scriptures, saying they are not correct, they are ambiguous, or that we orthodox Christians do not have the correct interpretation, because in fact the truth was handed down by oral tradition (in which was handed down the gnosis to which they appeal) (Book III, Chapter 2, Paragraph 1).
[This, by itself, seems to be an argument against appealing to oral tradition and in favor of sola scriptura, but the real thrust of his argument is that Scripture alone is powerless to confute the heretics. He continues…]
3. When we refer instead to our apostolic tradition, “which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches,” these heretics reject that too, saying that they are wiser than our presbyters and even the Apostles themselves, that they alone have the unadulterated truth. In short, these heretics reject both our means of transmitting the truth, both Scripture and Tradition (Book III, Chapter 2, Paragraph 2).
[How, oh how, are we supposed to reason with these people, then?]
4. Anyone who wishes to see the truth of the orthodox position is able to see it by the tradition of the Apostles manifest throughout the whole world, in Churches whose foundation can be reliably traced back to the Apostles — that is, because all these Churches are united in teaching the same truths, and they’re not gnostic. We are in fact in a position to trace the succession of bishops in these Churches back to the Apostles and demonstrate their apostolic foundation (Book III, Chapter 3, Paragraph 1).
5. Since there are way too many Churches to reckon this up in right now, I will name the bishops succeeding in Rome — since this Church is the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul” and because “it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority” (Book III, Chapater 3, Paragraph 2). [He chooses Rome as an exemplar for three reasons: because it is an exemplar in preserving the truth continuously handed down and preserved; because it is “great, ancient, universally known,” and founded by not one but the two greatest Apostles (implying that its apostolic foundation is well known by everybody); and on account of it preeminent authority.]
That is, to sum up the whole thing: neither Scripture alone, nor Tradition alone, can reason with these heretics, since they reject both arguments; so the only way to demonstrate the truth is by appealing to the received truth handed down by the succession of bishops, through a demonstrable line from the Apostles — that is, Scripture plus Tradition plus Apostolic Succession — plus the essential unity of all these Apostolic Churches who agree in the same truth — a unity guaranteed by agreement with the Church of “preeminent authority.”
It is very difficult to escape the import of these words, “preeminent authority.” The extant Latin says potiorem principalitatem — by my translation, I would say “more potent principality,” which I think is even more damning for your position than “preeminent authority.” I like the comment of the ANF editor: that “we have been unable to think of anything better [than preeminent authority]” and that this is “a most extraordinary confession; it would be hard to find a worse.” Your suggestion that the bishop of Rome had “preeminence in history but not authority” is contradicted by the very face of these words. (What does “preeminence in history” even mean?) If Rome’s position here is merely a product of teaching the same thing as everybody else, then why does Irenaeus insist that necesse est omnem convenire ecclesiam — it is necessary that all agree with this Church?
This is false and a poor reading. The blessed Apostles [that is, Peter and Paul], having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. That is, Peter and Paul founded the episcopate — they were the first bishops themselves — and then the men they appointed followed in their episcopacy.
I’ve written a pretty lengthy article — not perfect or authoritative by any means, or probably all that convincing, but it will at least let you see what I have to argue without my having to repeat it all. You have addressed several of the most important pieces of evidence already. But I will sum up my reasoning:
1. Peter, according to Scripture, was the foremost Apostle and given a preeminent pastoral role by Christ.
2. Peter ended his days in Rome, and historical sources are unanimous as placing him as the first bishop there.
3. The concept of apostolic succession is attested nascently in Scripture and firmly by the earliest traditional witnesses (e.g. 1 Clement). As we have seen in Irenaeus, apostolic succession was understood to be an essential marker of orthodoxy, unity, and authority.
4. From the earliest witnesses, we see evidences of the bishops of Rome asserting guidance (not supremacy) over other Churches — and rather than balking and insisting on their independence, those Churches cooperated, deferred, or else there was a crisis (as in the quartodeciman controversy). The examples you name to question the primacy of Rome, most interpreters (including myself) take as evidences of it.
5. Irenaeus’s statement about the “preeminent authority” or “potent principality” of the Church of Rome all but clinches the matter for me.
6. After these evidences of the primacy of Rome in the first centuries of the Church, it is a manifest historical fact that by the time of the ecumenical councils, it was recognized in all the churches that the bishop of Rome had a place of primacy. The First Council of Constantinople contentiously declared that the bishop of Constantinople should “have the primacy of honor after the bishop of Rome, because the same is New Rome.” At subsequent councils (see especially Ephesus  and Chalcedon ), the counsel of the bishop of Rome was recognized as the authoritative voice of truth.
7. The Church Fathers, when they speak of the unity of the faith, almost as a rule acknowledge the role of primacy played by the bishop of Rome.
As I see it, there are only two possible conclusions from all this: the claims that the Catholic Church that the pope is prime over his brother bishops, and was intended to be so from the beginning, are true; or the claims are false, and the pope falsely usurped an authority that was not his by the fourth or so century. The historical record, in my view, supports the former and not the latter: for there are demonstrable cases, almost from the beginning of the Church (e.g. 1 Clement) of the bishops of Rome exerting influence or guidance over other churches, and the only friction visible being that he was giving bad advice or making bad decisions, not that he had no standing to do so. Certainly in the ecumenical councils, the primacy of the bishop of Rome was accepted as a fact and not as a controversial claim.
… Now, it’s an entirely different argument whether medieval popes usurped their rightful authority as “first among equals” over other bishops, as the Orthodox content. The argument I am making here is only that he had a primacy of “first among equals” in the early centuries of the Church — which seems to me to be indisputable.
This may be all I have time for today. The peace of the Lord be with you!
[For what it’s worth, the Mass has been retranslated to adhere more closely to the Latin. The correct response, as it is in Latin, is “And with your spirit.” (Et cum spiritu tuo.) 😀 ]
Oh, yeah…I forgot. I haven’t been to many Masses lately. 😉
Looks like you’ve got more time than I to respond to comments today. But I’m still waiting on your response to my reply on my first post in this “series.” I’ll respond to your comment here after I get that.
By the way — this and I’ll go away — the snippet from Ignatius’s Epistle to the Magnesians, about the bishop “bishop presiding in the place of God,” is taken grossly out of context. It is not part of the salutation, as the appellation about the “bishop [of Rome] presiding in love”; it is part of Ignatius’s call to follow the bishop, as he makes in all of his letters, and part of a metaphor that he uses repeatedly. In context, he says:
No, he is not saying that the bishop of Magnesia “presides in the place of God” — as if he takes the place of God! In his metaphor, the bishop — all bishops — stands at the head of the Church hierarchically as does God or Christ; the presbyters (priests) stand beneath the bishop as the Apostles; and the deacons serve the priests.
By comparison he tells the Smyrnaeans:
And to the Trallians:
You see that this metaphor is Ignatius’s refrain — not some place of privilege to which he was elevating the bishop of Magnesia.
I don’t see why it matters whether his reference to the bishop of the Magnesians as “in the place of God” is in the salutation or the body of his letter. The point is that such a reference makes the Church’s claim that “presides in/over love…seems to be an indication of his recognition” of Rome’s primacy, to be a real stretch. And stretching is what the church must do to find evidence of papal authority in the first 3 centuries.
I think it’s rather a stretch to reject the clear evidence.
Well, let’s see if I can respond in a few less words than you did. You have not provided me any good evidence, from the first 3 centuries, that the bishop of Rome had primacy in the early church, whether “first among equals” or otherwise. Your VERY lengthy article I skimmed but do not have time to read in full. If there are citations from the early fathers in there that I have not already referenced, perhaps you could copy and paste just those passages here.
I reference Clement’s letter here but let me just reiterate the point that, as I’m sure you’re aware, bishops of many of the early churches wrote to other churches letters of exhortation, encouragement, and instruction. Your contention that if Victor was not considered “first among equals” the other bishops would have shunned or excommunicated him back ignores the obvious concern the bishops had for unity, which is why they wrote to him. The fact that Irenaeus, Polycarp and others went to Rome is not evidence of Rome’s primacy but rather of Rome’s repeated need for correction. I offer just one example, but there are others.
“At that time, Zephyrinus imagines that he administers the affairs of the Church – an uninformed and shamefully corrupt man. And he, being persuaded by proffered gain, was accustomed to connive at those who were present for the purpose of becoming disciples of Cleomenes. But (Zephyrinus) himself, being in process of time enticed away, hurried headlong into the same opinions; and he had Callistus as his adviser, and a fellow-champion of these wicked tenets. But the life of this (Callistus), and the heresy invented by him, I shall after a little explain.The school of these heretics during the succession of such bishops, continued to acquire strength and augmentation, from the fact that Zephyrinus and Callistus helped them to prevail. Never at any time, however, have we been guilty of collusion with them; but we have frequently offered them opposition, and have refuted them, and have forced them reluctantly to acknowledge the truth. And they, abashed and constrained by the truth, have confessed their errors for a short period, but after a little, wallow once again in the same mire.”
(Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, Book IX, chapter II)
I (of course) disagree with your interpretation of the “thrust” of Irenaeus’ argument. I understand him to be saying that the claims of the heretics are disproved by appealing to the unity of doctrine among all the churches, which is in agreement with Scripture, and which churches can be shown to trace their leadership back to the apostles. As the church at Rome had Peter and Paul as their founding apostles, he highlights her as the template, if you will, that the other churches conform to. And that’s what I meant by “preeminence in history”…her founding by the preeminent apostles.
To repeat then, you said there’s a “lot of evidence” of Rome’s primacy in the early church but you’ve given me nothing in your 7 points from the first 3 and a half centuries (after which, of course, Rome succeeded at establishing it for herself) that is anywhere near clear that the bishop of Rome was looked to by the other churches as being distinguished in position.
Hi, Caroline. I really do need to study computer networks today — though honestly I’d rather be writing about the Church. Let me try to reply to you with a few less words than I did before, too. Obviously, brevity is not my strong suit.
To sum up our discussion so far: I embrace these texts as evidence and you reject them. I am not the only one who accepts such interpretations or finds them compelling; your are not the only one who finds them unconvincing. We’ve both presented our views. We may have to leave it at that.
The evidence we can cite from early centuries to support, or reject, the bishops of Rome being seen as “first among equals” is only one piece of the pie. It is documented that they were seen as such by the times of the ecumenical councils in the fourth century and onward. This idea did not then come out of nowhere, and the earliest clear statements of it did not come from Roman partisans — not a campaign “to capture what was not hers at all [previously],” but apparently unsolicited acclamations from the assembled bishops of the rest of the Church. Would you argue that they all were wrong? Why would they advance and support such a position, if it were not already an established tradition? I would say that though the foundations of the pillars are obscured by time and meager extant sources, what stands on them is plainly visible in the fact that bishops of the fourth century so readily acclaimed the bishop of Rome’s primacy.
Again, the fact that the bishop of Rome had opponents or even those who rejected their claims to primacy is not in itself evidence against that primacy. If anything, you shoot your own argument in the foot by demonstrating the fact that such claims were being made — they were not novelties of the fourth-century or later, as I’ve heard many a Protestant argue. Yes, “Zephyrinus imagines that he administers the affairs of the Church” — and Hippolytus, for his part, was a perennial opponent of successive pope after pope, arguing that they were too liberal and merciful in welcoming back the lapsed — in many ways the analogue of modern-day Radical Catholic Traditionalists, who oppose the mercy and ecumenical vision of recent popes. Hippolytus opposed their doctrine, but apparently thought enough of their claims to authority to claim to be the legitimate bishop of Rome himself. Likewise do the letter of Firmilian already cited, and the quotation from Tertullian (by that time a Montanist heretic) acknowledge these claims by rejecting them.
My “interpretation” of Irenaeus’s argument is not really an “interpretation”; it was practically a verbatim summary. You are free to reject this argument and have your own, but it does not change the fact that Irenaeus wrote that the Church of Rome has “potent principality” (that is, the first place, superiority, preeminence, excellence). This view, though most strongly articulated by Irenaeus, was not unique to Irenaeus: Origen and Cyprian both, for example, acknowledge the See of Peter as the foundation of the universal episcopacy and the center of the Church’s unity (see my unwieldy tome for some quotations).
This is still not brief, but perhaps a little better. 🙂 Please say a prayer for me. I still need to study, and I’m afraid I’m getting sick. 😦 I will try to reply to the other new responses later — perhaps after my exam Monday, perhaps sooner if I can’t resist the temptation. 😀 Peace be with you!
Please wait until after your exam, Joseph. There’s no good reason not to, and I want you to do well on it. I have prayed for you and will again that God restores you to good health quickly. In fact, I was going to reply to your latest response here but will decline so as not to stir you up anymore.
I would also like to suggest that once you say what you must in reply to my other responses, we just leave it at that. I have appreciated your very congenial input as you have helped me strengthen my defense. Though we disagree quite radically on what the evidence shows, you are obviously well-versed in it and you make a good apologist for the Catholic Church. But that’s not likely to pay the bills, so get your studying in today. 🙂
And I am going to follow your blog so that I can start harassing you with lengthy rebuttals. 🙂
Caroline, thanks. Yes, I really don’t want to go around and round on a topic, either, if we are just rehashing the same points. It seemed you brought some new ones in your reply that I wanted to address. But maybe enough is enough along this line. I don’t think it’s likely that either of us is going to convince the other to change his or her mind, on this or probably any other point. Our commitments are too deep. The reasons why I continue to reply anyway and blog myself can be narrowed down, I think, to two:
One, your polemic tone really set me off and bothers me deeply and personally. Yes, Catholics and Protestants believe differently about a great many points of faith. But you write as if the Catholic Church and her doctrines have personally harmed you and offended you. You write as if Catholic doctrine has no reasonable or rational basis, as if any Catholic “friend” is being lied to, and need only examine the basic facts to be set free from such bondage. You write as if the Catholic Church intentionally and knowingly teaches falsehoods and misleads the faithful in order to maintain a dictatorial authority over people’s lives. Now, normally when I encounter such rhetoric — which is, to be fair, very common, and is standard fare for any kind of polemical rhetoric — I turn the other cheek and walk away. But you struck me immediately as someone decent, caring, and surprisingly reasonable. I’m glad I haven’t been disappointed in that judgment. But still I wonder at your tone and your rationale.
I write, as an apologist, because I’ve discovered a truth that has brought me a lot of grace and light, and I want to share that truth with others. It’s true that at times in my blog I have criticized Protestant doctrine: but I believe from the bottom of my heart that both the Protestants who believe and the Protestant Reformers who teach such doctrine do so in good faith, not out of malice or deceit. I don’t believe that such doctrine, in itself, damns anyone, and I do believe that Christ saves many true believers from both camps. I am very grateful for my years, my upbringing, my foundation as a Protestant, and I don’t have any inclination or desire to attack that foundation. This is the case for many converts to Catholicism, while it’s usually, in experience, the converts from Catholicism to Protestantism who bring the polemics. I’ve tried to argue with such people in the past (I once, as a newly-minted Catholic, went two rounds with Mike Gendron before he stopped replying) and usually find it to be fruitless. My reason for replying to you is, I wonder why the polemic? For Protestantism to be true, is it necessary that the Catholic Church be corrupt and deceitful and Catholics ignorant and misled? You seem like you may actually be reasonable enough to answer that question, where others have not been. I also hope to present, to your readers if not to you, that I am not ignorant and misled, that I do, and other Catholics, do have good reasons for believing what we do, and that the characterization you present of the Catholic Church isn’t quite truthful. Reasonable Christians can disagree without one necessarily belonging to a “synagogue of Satan.” And I believe we are both reasonable Christians.
The other reason I write is because I believe reasonable Christians have much more in common than “agreeing to disagree.” We share a common faith, a common truth, a common Christ. We do have serious differences of opinion, of doctrine, of practice; but these, I believe, amount to little more than nuances and contours on the face of the faith. I believe it’s only by understanding and embracing together what we have in common that we can once again approach to fulfilling the Lord’s wish “that we might all be one.” That is not to say that we should gloss over our differences: but we should acknowledge that though our differences divide us from each other, they do not separate us from the grace or love of Christ. It is only by standing together, by forgiving one another, by letting the Lord heal the wounds of division we have inflicted, that we can hope to survive as the Body of Christ. And I believe that polemic does not heal, but only further divides.
Sorry, I didn’t mean to give a sermon. 😛 Peace be with you.
Very well said, Joseph, and I will take it all to heart. I look forward to following your blog.
By the way…how did your exam go and how are you feeling?
And just to give you a quick explanation of my “tone and rationale,” I do believe that the Church “personally harmed” me, and more so continues to harm millions, by teaching a false gospel that is more effective at turning folks away from Christ rather than to him. I get angry when I think of the multitudes who do not have the assurance of salvation that could be theirs and are expecting to have to endure potentially years of unimaginable suffering in Purgatory because of doctrine that I am firmly convinced is false.
You are a winsome example of openness and congeniality, as are many of my Catholic family members and friends. When I did my month-long, every day series on the Church two years ago (if you’re interested, it starts here) I made it a point to include something positive about the Church or her people each Sunday. But the fact of the matter is that the Catholic Church anathematizes me and asserts herself as having authority over me, and though of course I reject this and it doesn’t affect my faith walk, when I write about her some of my indignation comes through.
I know I’m not as merciful and compassionate as I should be and I ask God to make me so. He’s working on it, and perhaps he is using you towards that end. I think I would do well to emulate your “tone,” but I feel strongly that the Catholic Church has such influence that what I believe to be her errors are rightfully exposed, yet should be done “with gentleness and respect.”
Caroline, thanks for this. Allow me to reply to just a few points here (hopefully not ad nauseam)
The charge of a “false gospel,” is, I’m sure you realize, an especially hurtful one. Why do you suppose the Catholic Church teaches a “false gospel”? As I’ve argued and I think I’ve shown, the Church doesn’t teach “salvation by works.” If Catholics and Protestants have any legitimate dispute, it is what role our works play, not whether our works save us. I for one do not think any doctrine founded on salvation by the grace of Christ alone can be a “false gospel.”
I also would ask why you think Catholic doctrine “is more effectively at turning folks away from Christ rather than to Him” — since it’s been my personal experience that I’ve Catholic doctrine has drawn me closer to Christ than Protestant doctrine ever did, and I’ve witnessed the same in numerous other converts. Our pews are full, as are our RCIA classes. In both dioceses I’ve been a part of, we are having to expand and build new parishes. The Catholics I know are joyful and exuberant for the Gospel; the only people I’ve known to be “turned away” are those poached by other churches, who were, I would generalize, poorly catechized as Catholics in the first place. I tend to think you are protecting your own anger.
I will gladly read your series. Give me a little time, though.
I always wince when a Protestant claims “the Catholic Church anathematizes me.” I’m not sure what your understanding of that word is, but I find that many Protestants have an incorrect understanding — taking it to mean that the Church “pronounces eternal damnation” on them or something other along those lines. This isn’t actually what “anathema sit” means, in the context of a disciplinary pronouncement of the Church. “Anathema sit” means a formal excommunication from the Church, to those who are in the Church and obstinately teaching error: nothing more and nothing less. Presumably this does not apply to you. (See my post, “Let him be Anathema”: Not what many Protestants think it means, which has turned out to be an enduring favorite, if consistent hits and comments are any indication. The now-lengthy comment thread is worth reading, too.)
So I would say, in short, that your indignation is misplaced. The Catholic Church offers nothing but grace to you. “For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using [the communities of our separated brethren] as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church” (Second Vatican Council, Unitatis Redintegratio [Decree on Ecumenism] 3 ).
Thank you. I pray I can be worthy of that.
Peace be with you.
Joseph, you have argued well for your faith, but have not convinced me that the Catholic doctrine of salvation is not as much a false gospel as Paul criticized the Galatians for turning to. It seems to me that if the role works play is anything more than evidence of our faith and that which earns us rewards here on earth or in heaven, then they are in some measure effectual in our salvation…which, in light of all the many verses that reference salvation by faith as opposed to works, appear contrary to the gospel.
I’m well aware that the Catholic Church draws some Protestants, for various reasons. But I am also aware that there are many ex-Catholics in my church as well as in non-Catholic churches all over the world. And I have personally witnessed how, despite the efforts of my very wise, loving, and very devoted Catholic parents, the legalism, odd and implausible doctrines, and focus on works and lack of teaching that we can have a genuine relationship with Christ through the indwelling Holy Spirit and assurance of salvation when we truly believe, most of my nine siblings have fallen away from or outright rejected the Church.
Caroline, you do realize, I’m certain, the specifics of the “false gospel” to which the Galatians fell prey, the heresy of the Judaizers: not of practicing “works” in general, but specifically of believing that circumcision was necessary for salvation (cf. Acts 15:1, Galatians 5:2). To interpolate and generalize from his mention of “works” in this context to “anything we do at all” is not warranted by this or any other Pauline text. Paul also states explicitly, in the very same language, that Baptism is not a “work [ἔργον] done in righteousness,” but is the means through which [διά, a preposition marking instrumentality or circumstance whereby something is accomplished or effected] we are saved by God (Titus 3:5).
So no, the charge that Catholics believe a “false gospel” is unwarranted and offensive. Paul says that those who believe this “false gospel,” who would be “justified by the law” (again, the context refers specifically to circumcision) are “severed from Christ” and “fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). (There is actually a pretty gross and explicit reference here, somewhat softened in most polite English translations, that only makes sense in the specific context of circumcision: Paul says, “If you believe this, I wish you would just cut the whole thing off” (Galatians 5:11-12.).
All of this is to say — you have stated elsewhere that you don’t believe Catholics are necessarily “cut off from grace” — as I have heard many other people of your ilk argue. So not even you believe the implications of this charge of a “false gospel.” I wish you would stop saying it.
The truth is, Catholics and Protestants disagree about the role of works in salvation. This has two grounds. The first is that, according to Evangelicals, Catholics believe that some “work” is necessary for salvation — that “work” being Baptism — which is not a human “work” at all, per the direct testimony of Scripture. Neither is Baptism a “work,” nor is it “necessary” in the most absolute sense: it is God who gives us the grace of salvation, and though this is the general means by which He’s given it, he can give it however he pleases, and has mercy on plenty of unbaptized people too, we believe. This objection is nonsensical to me and I often completely overlook it; sorry about that.
The second, completely unrelated to the first, is our disagreement about what role works play in the final judgment. This is an empty, chicken and egg argument. We both believe they are necessary — you as evidence, we as merits. Neither of us believes “works save us” or are effectual in any measure (repeating again, Baptism is not a human “work”). You do great damage to the truth if you gloss over the distinction between these two disagreements.
The fallacious part of the Evangelical belief in “assurance” is that it is entirely subjective and dependent on outcome. If a believer claims to have “assurance,” then later falls into grave sin or apostasy, only to “recommit” to the Lord later, it’s common to hear, “Oh, well I had false assurance before; I didn’t really ‘get saved’ until that later time.” I have known personally who’ve gone through such “recommitments” a half dozen times or more, and said the same thing every time: “I had false assurance; I wasn’t really saved.” Likewise, if an “assured” believer falls away completely and relapses to a life of sin — the conclusion is usually, “Well, he must have had ‘false assurance’; he was never really ‘saved’ to begin with.” One of my best friends spent years in serious doubt of his salvation, receiving, and having no organ by which to receive, any “assurance” at all — since such is entirely subjective. You speak of Catholics having “no assurance”: I say, I have far more assurance than these people, whose “assurance” is based on nothing more than their own self-confidence, on their own faithfulness, on their own feelings. To live in such uncertainty of one’s eternal salvation is frightening and appalling! (I have a series on this.)
I am very sorry for your parents and your family. I do not know how old you are or when you grew up, but I know that catechesis in the post-Vatican II 1970s and 80s was especially bad. I certainly believe — and it is taught every week in my church — that we have a genuine and intimate relationship with the Lord through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and through the Sacraments. I have never heard anything different taught in a Catholic Church. Growing up as an Evangelical with these things essential to my faith, I would not have been drawn to the Catholic Church or embraced her if these things were lacking. I think you have a lot of hurt, anger, and resentment toward the Catholic Church — but I would challenge that this anger clouds your vision and your judgment.
The peace of the Lord be with you.
By the way, my exams went fine. The one I was really freaking out about Monday turned out to be not so bad. This is my third degree, in computer science, after two degrees in history turned out to be not so employable. Thanks for asking.
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