Way Out on a Limb

My father was raised Lutheran, although as far as I know he never attended a Lutheran church as an adult. He never attended any church at all when I was little, leaving my mother to take my sister and me with her to her Methodist church. Then for some reason, when we started high school Dad suddenly decided that we all needed to attend church as a family. This was no conversion on his part; it may have dawned on him that children with solid religious grounding are less likely to end up on drugs or pregnant, or my mother’s nagging may finally have gotten to him. Anyhow, we found a church that was acceptable to both parents, the nondenominational Scottsdale Bible Church (this was the 1970s, so it had not as yet gone mega), and every Sunday morning Dad would put on a suit, crown his balding head with one of his cowboy hats, and pile us into the Lincoln for the 10-minute ride to church.

Once we girls left home, Dad reverted to his former routine of getting up, about the time Mom was leaving for church, to spend the morning watching Meet the Press and Face the Nation, and to work in the yard if it wasn’t too hot out there. God just didn’t much interest him. He used to drive my mother, a fervent charismatic, right round the bend. I believe he didn’t so much have his own beliefs about God, as he had reactions to my mother’s beliefs about God. Had she been among the Frozen Chosen, I doubt he would have cared, but her charismatic inclinations grated on him. Whenever she would bring up the subject of God, he was ready with a stock objection.

“What about suffering?” he would demand. “The existence of suffering pretty much proves that there is no good, loving God!”

And she was stymied. He pulled this stunt on her over and over again, because it worked. She would try to explain the mystery of suffering from a Christian perspective and would get bogged down in his objections, rejections and imperious what-ifs. One day when she was complaining to me about this, I had what now seems pretty obvious but what at that moment, after years of trying to explain the mystery of suffering to his satisfaction, amounted to an epiphany for both of us.

Stop trying to explain suffering to him! I urged her. Insist that the conversation begin at the beginning! After all, if your kindergartner asked you to explain indefinite integrals to her, you wouldn’t sit down and try to do that – you would tell her that she needs to learn how to add and subtract, multiply and divide. With no grounding in the basics of mathematics, calculus will simply be mumbo-jumbo as far as she’s concerned, no matter how well you think you’re explaining it.

My recent posts on two Marian feast days, the Assumption and the Coronation, reminded me of this discussion, and I realized that just as you can’t begin with theodicy when explaining Christianity to a skeptic, in the same way when we try to explain Catholicism to Protestants, the Marian doctrines are not the place to start. We need to explain that to Protestant inquirers. This will most likely strike them as a dodge; after all, their objections to “Mary worship” are the first thing they want to talk about – if we won’t talk about it, it’s because we know it’s indefensible! But starting there is like starting an explanation of Christianity with a discussion of why a good God allows suffering, or like explaining calculus to a kindergartner, like beginning your examination of a magnificent old oak tree way out on a high limb, rather than starting the discussion at the base of the tree, talking about the roots. The Marian doctrines really are a natural extension of things Protestants already believe – the doctrine of the Incarnation and the doctrine of the communion of saints. However, WHY the Catholic conclusion should be believed is the real question. The doctrine of the authority of the Church Jesus established is the sticking point, and they will hear you saying that you believe the Marian doctrines because you think the Church has the authority to invent doctrine out of thin air. Properly explained, the Marian doctrines make a great deal of sense, but to properly explain them, we must begin at the beginning, with the authority of the Church.

So, if anyone asks, just tell them that, no, we don’t worship Mary – that would be breaking the First Commandment – but we do venerate her because we believe that is her due. If they’re honestly interested and have some time to devote to the subject, you can sit down with them and discuss why Catholics are convinced that God never intended for His Church to depend on the Bible alone, despite what Protestants contend. That will be a shock to them, and very hard to grasp. I know it took me weeks to wrap my mind around the idea that the Bible does not teach the doctrine of sola Scriptura, but that it does teach that Jesus established an authoritative Church. That is why that Church, the Catholic Church, was able to successfully defend the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus when it was challenged by the Arians. A sola-Scriptura church never would have been up to that challenge, since the Scriptural argument against Jesus’ divinity can appear just as compelling as the argument for it. Seriously, Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are modern-day Arians, can wrestle a sola Scriptura Christian to the mat on that issue. Don’t believe me? Go find a Jehovah’s Witness and try it out for yourself! (I did – that’s one of the reasons I’m Catholic now!) It was by wielding the authority vested in them by God that the successors to the apostles declared the Arian understanding to be wrong (just as the apostles, upon whom the Church is built, had wielded their God-given authority at the Council of Jerusalem nearly 300 years earlier and declared the Judaizers’ understanding of the necessity of circumcision to be wrong), not because the Church has the authority to invent doctrine out of thin air, but because the Church has the authority to declare the truth about God, and the ability to declare it infallibly. An authoritative Church is NECESSARY, which is why Jesus established one. As that same Church pondered the mystery of Mary, her role in salvation history became clearer and was formally defined, doctrine by doctrine. The Church is not making up the Marian doctrines as we go along; the Church is, like Mary, “pondering these things in her heart” and then disclosing to the world the fruit of that contemplation. When Protestants level at the Church the charge that Catholics are proposing doctrines which were unknown to the first Christians, we can tell them that the same charge was (and still is) leveled at the successors to the apostles when they declared that the Holy Spirit is God. Where does the Bible say that?? And why did it take the Church over 300 years to formally proclaim the Holy Spirit to be God?

Look for a pattern here:

The Old Testament nowhere states explicitly that a male desirous of joining the People of God can avoid circumcision, yet the Church circa A.D. 48 proclaimed that baptism has replaced circumcision, confident that the Bible does not contradict this understanding, thereby enabling the Church to successfully defend the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith against the erroneous beliefs of the Judaizers. A sola Scriptura-based decision? Hardly.

The Bible, Old Testament or New, nowhere states explicitly that God is a Trinity of Persons, yet the Church in A.D. 381 defined the doctrine of the Trinity, confident that the Bible does not contradict this understanding; thereby enabling the Church to successfully defend the doctrines of the deity of Christ and the deity of the Holy Spirit against the erroneous beliefs of the Arians and the Sabellians. A sola Scriptura-based decision? Well, no – you have to admit that it wasn’t.

The Bible nowhere states explicitly that the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed into Heaven, yet the Church in A.D. 1950 proclaimed the doctrine of the Assumption, confident that the Bible does not contradict this understanding, thereby enabling the Church to defend a belief held by Catholics since the early days of the Church against the erroneous beliefs of those who claim that Mary was just some random unit in the economy of salvation. A sola Scriptura-based decision? Not any more than the decisions reached by the Council of Jerusalem (A.D. 48) or the First Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381), yet every bit as legitimate.

Authority is the root of the oak tree. To whom did God grant authority – to a Book, or to His Church? Your answer to that question will impact every other area of your doctrine. We need to familiarize Protestants with the Catholic answer to that question before we even think about discussing anything else. Higher mathematics are not gobbledygook, nor are they hocus-pocus, despite the fact that to kindergartners they may appear to be. The Marian doctrines fall into place when we grasp the concepts of Sacred Tradition and development of doctrine, and the authority of the Church to define doctrine and to do it infallibly.

The doctrine of the authority of the Bible alone, however, is a conjecture with no basis in Scripture and no support in the writings of the Church Fathers. The promulgation of the Marian doctrines, as we have seen, follows the process documented in Scripture (as well as in history) of the Catholic Church, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, declaring her understanding of orthodox doctrine. This is nothing new, and nothing strange. The Marian doctrines are a normal development, just what you would expect on a healthy, growing tree.

But the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura – that’s way out on a limb!


On the memorial of St. Monica

Deo omnis gloria!

Photo credit: Century oak tree on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, by Ed Schipul/Wikimedia Commons

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