The Shoulders of Joe Schmoe

“On the shoulders of giants!” Can’t you hear the theme music swelling in the background?! It conjures up images of larger-than-life pioneers clearing a path for us lesser sorts, fighting their way through the wilderness to usher us into the land of milk and honey. The Israelites could certainly believe that they stood on the shoulders of giants: of Abraham, who left everything and strode forth in faith; of Moses, who defied the ruler of an empire to lead his people to freedom; of Joshua, who lead those people in the battle for the land promised to them by God; of the judges, and the good kings, and the prophets…. Your average Joe ben Israel knew that he never would have succeeded in become the faithful believer that he was, had it not been for those “giants” in his ancestral past. He was not doomed to commit the mistakes of the patriarchs; instead, he could learn from them and draw closer to God. Standing on their shoulders, he was able to see so much farther than he ever could have seen had his feet remained rooted to the ground.

The same goes for the early Christians: Peter, Paul, James, Andrew, Philip, Timothy… what a list of giants! These men, like mighty sequoias, are silhouetted on the horizon of our Christian past. To this day we marvel at their courage in standing up to the Sanhedrin, to the pagan rioters, to the Roman government. The fledgling community of believers never would have survived had it not been for these leaders. They stood on the shoulders of these giants. The average Christian put her trust in these men, knowing that she could base her understanding of Scripture on their interpretation of it, assured that the doctrines which they taught were sound, and that the doctrines which they condemned were heretical. Christianity was built on the firm foundation of these men, as Ephesians tell us:

…you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

Christianity isn’t a matter of each believer going out and erecting his own little Quonset hut! Believers are built together, one building, upon the pre-existing foundation of the apostles and prophets – in other words, as I said, upon the shoulders of giants.

And that’s one problem with Evangelicalism.

Our priest has lamented what he calls the “Evangelical commitment to radical discontinuity,” the skepticism causing every Evangelical to feel honor-bound to reinvent the wheel. In Evangelical circles, of course, this reinvention is looked upon as a good and very reasonable approach to theology. Evangelicals will tell you that they rely on Scripture alone to form their doctrine. That’s why each believer must decide each “Biblical doctrine” for himself. He can consult, naturally, with other Protestants as he forms his opinion, but he knows well that those other Protestants are just as fallible as he is. In the end, it all boils down to what this Bible verse means to him. To build upon the work of another implies trust, trust that that person knows what he’s doing. Sola Scriptura, however, demands faith in one’s own ability to understand the Bible, trust in the acuity of one’s own spiritual hearing as the Spirit whispers the truths of God. To trust another’s teaching looks suspiciously as if one wanted to place a human being between oneself and the Almighty.

So the closest most Evangelicals get to relying on the spiritual insights of another person, to “standing on the shoulders” of anyone, is when said Evangelical chooses a church to attend. He seats himself under the teaching of the pastor of that church and absorbs that pastor’s “Bible-based doctrine.” The pastor, too, is “reinventing the wheel” to a certain extent. He may very well be the pastor of a non-denominational church, with a theology which is primarily Baptist-based, but which he as the pastor is allowed to flavor as he goes along; by playing up the “right” verses and declining to discuss others, he can steer his congregation towards Calvinism, towards charismatic propensities, towards Health and Wealth. No matter – a good Evangelical knows to keep that pastor under close surveillance, scrutinizing the man’s theology and comparing it with his own limited, admittedly shaky grasp of “what the Bible really teaches.” As soon as that pastor appears in the eyes of the individual to have strayed from “Biblical” teaching, the Evangelical hastily jumps down off the sloping shoulders of his former leader, self-ordained Joe Schmoe, or even Joseph Q. Schmoe, D.D., and scurries off to find a mentor who adheres more closely to the individual’s private, and admittedly fallible, interpretation of Holy Scripture.

For the Evangelical, being “grounded in Scripture” is of supreme importance, and it makes standing on anyone’s shoulders a nearly impossible proposition. A pastor’s teaching is trusted only provisionally. In fact, many Evangelical pastors have as their goal that the individuals in their congregation learn to study the Bible for themselves. Some individuals do achieve this goal, and then desert the pastor who taught them to study the Bible because their study of the Bible has convinced them that their pastor’s teaching is “unbiblical.” An Evangelical must admit that even when he is confident enough to stand on his pastor’s figurative shoulders in an effort to gain a better spiritual vantage point, his trust in that pastor is merely provisional. And thus, an Evangelical never gets up very high for very long, and can consequently never see too terribly far.

This confidence in “Bible-based” theology reminds me for all the world of botanical reproduction through stolons. You know what a stolon is – a stolon is a horizontally oriented stem that creeps along the ground. It puts down roots. Think “strawberry runners.” When I think of stolons, I think “grass.” This system of reproduction works very well for grass, which is why you can have such a problem keeping grass out of areas where you don’t want it. It sends those stolons creeping into your garden, and before you know it – you’ve got grass growing among the gardenias.

As successful as this system of reproduction is, there’s one thing we’ve got to admit: Jesus never compared the kingdom of Heaven to a field of grass. He never said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a clump of grass that sprouted in a field, and it put forth stolons which rooted, and it covered the whole field, and sheep came and grazed upon it.”

And that’s funny, because this grass-like propensity for rooting is the perfect image of Protestant “Bible-based” theology. Folks who describe themselves as “Bible-believing Christians” generally mean to say that for every belief and practice of theirs, they can produce a corresponding Bible verse. They like to talk about how their doctrine is “rooted in Scripture.”

And the Catholic Church agrees with them that the Christian belief system must be firmly rooted in Scripture. As Dei Verbum tells us:

Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture. For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. Consequently these words are perfectly applicable to Sacred Scripture: “For the word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12) and “it has power to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32; see 1 Thess 2:13).

Yet, we can’t help but see a discrepancy between the “Bible-only” approach and the Catholic approach to rooting our teaching in Scripture. The “Bible-only” approach insists that all beliefs and practices of an individual Christian or a given denomination be backed up by a chapter-and-verse. This of course led the descendants of the Reformers to discard such longstanding Christian practices as asking the saints to pray for us. Yes, Bible-only Christians are familiar with Hebrews 12:1, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…,” and would never dispute that proposition, but they are leery to accept the natural extension of that verse, that those witnesses can not only see us and hear us (otherwise, in what sense are they witnesses?), but are also actively participating in our salvation by praying for us, and that we can ask them for their prayers. They would need a chapter-and-verse to feel comfortable with what Catholics believe just follows (understanding as we do that all members of the body of Christ are called upon to love each other and to pray for each other, and that one does not cease to be a member of the body of Christ when one goes to be with the Lord, and that those members in Heaven have been perfected in love….) This is the “stolon” effect of “chapter-and-verse” theology. The plant is alive, it grows, it thrives… but it never gets off the ground. Like grass. What Jesus envisioned was different:

What is the kingdom of God like, and to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and threw into his own garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.

Back to those “mighty sequoias” we were talking about….

Grass is not the example Jesus gave us, and grass-like behavior is not the method of growth He envisioned for His kingdom. Yes, our doctrine MUST be rooted in the word of God, but a chapter-and-verse-for-everything scenario binds us to the ground as surely as grass creeps rather than towers. Jesus told us that His kingdom would be like a tree, rooted in Scripture but then growing UP, developing, spreading out, always faithful to its beginnings (i.e., always remaining a mustard tree and not transmogrifying into a baobab), firmly attached at one end to the ground and deriving from that extensive root system the ability to reach for the heavens. Believers can climb high in that tree, for its branches are sturdy and strong.

This explains how Catholics stand on the shoulders of giants like St. Athanasius, whose memorial we celebrate today. I as an individual need not sift through the teachings of Athanasius (or of any other Church Father, for that matter) as would an Evangelical, foraging for sustenance but suspiciously sniffing for rot. As the first Christians implicitly trusted the apostles, assured that the doctrines which they taught were sound, and that the doctrines which they condemned were heretical, so can I as a Catholic trust the decisions made by the successors to those apostles who compose the Magisterium of the Church. As the Catechism instructs us:

The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.

The Magisterium, completely faithful to the Word of God, long, long ago sifted through the teachings of bishops like Athanasius (who, in his day, was simply Bishop Joe Schmoe) and determined that his views, and not those of his opponents like Arius (another Bishop Joe Schmoe), were in line with what the apostles taught. I do not have to “reinvent the wheel,” or “start from scratch,” or “sniff suspiciously” – I have to find the Church that Jesus established (Mt
16:18), the Church to whom He granted teaching authority (Lk 10:16, 1 Tim 1:3, 2 Tim 1:13-14, 2:2,

4:2, Titus 2:15), the Church which He promised could promulgate certain infallible doctrines (Mt. 16:18, 1 Tim 3:15), and climb up on her shoulders. From my vantage point, which is 2,000 years tall, I can take up and read Athanasius’ writings and learn from them, thus climbing higher, assured that the doctrines which the Church endorses are sound, and that the doctrines which the Church condemns are heretical. This stands in sharp contrast to my figurative Evangelical twin sister who will, say, embrace St. Athanasius’ teachings on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (because that’s how she reads her Bible), yet reject everything he said about Mary, the Holy Eucharist, confession to a priest, the possibility of losing one’s salvation, etc., etc., etc. (because that’s NOT how she reads her Bible). To the Evangelical, Athanasius is just one more teacher to be evaluated by the supremely knowledgeable, highly competent Bible scholar named “me”. Standing on his shoulders would be fool-hardy – it’s just sooo much safer here on the ground.

And so Evangelicals do not stand on the shoulders of giants; they cannot. To stand on someone’s shoulders implies an implicit trust. That giant must be reliable, and strong enough to bear my weight. When an Evangelical’s experiences of climbing are limited to the very shaky experience of standing on the shoulders of Joe Schmoe, it’s no wonder she has no desire to climb any higher. Not trusting Christ’s Church, she has no assurance that anyone’s shoulders can bear her weight.

For the Catholic, shoulder-climbing is like an Olympic event. We’ve gotten really, really good at it. Our advantage is simply that we know whom we have believed – the apostles taught and commissioned by the Lord, who are the foundation of the church and the Cornerstone, respectively, along with men like St. Timothy and St. Titus whom they selected to faithfully transmit the Faith, and their successors who they were persuaded would do the same. We call them the successors to the apostles, and they make up our teaching Magisterium. So, can we trust those guys??

Oh, yeah.

They’re standing on the Rock.


On the memorial of St. Athanasius    

Deo omnis gloria!

Photo credits: Desmoschoenus spiralis by Arne Hückelheim

Setaria verticillata by J.M. Garg

Coast Redwood Sequoia sempervirens grove, Rotorua, New Zealand by Andrew McMillan

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