Holy Tradition

A huge misconception exists concerning how the Holy Catholic Church comes up with its dogma. This is not surprising – the world has its own way of deciding “dogma,” and the world assumes that it uses the only method known to man. The world’s dogmas are decided by popular opinion – witness the 21st-century popular dogma which mandates that a person should be allowed to “marry” whomever he or she feels attracted to, with the expectation that “good-hearted” people will not put roadblocks on the path to said “marriage.” As more and more people have come to embrace this belief, it has been accepted as “dogma,” and no one is allowed to contradict it. The media have taken up the cause, and now routinely paint anyone who refuses to accept the new definition of marriage as a scum-sucking heretic. The world’s dogmas, of course, blow in the wind – 100 years ago this startling proposal that we 21st-century denizens are now required to believe on pain of ostracism would have run afoul of the sodomy laws. But, things change. Who knows what we will be required to believe tomorrow?

The world views Catholic dogma in the same light, assuming that the Church makes up Christianity as it goes along, assuming that dogma is somehow rooted in popular opinion (which is why so many look to Pope Francis to change the teaching of the Church, seeing as how so many Catholics nowadays find Church teaching on the male-only priesthood, contraception and abortion outmoded.) When the Church proudly points to the “consensus of the Fathers” on issues such as the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, the world hears “passed into law by majority vote.” In other words, the world assumes that the Church proclaims the Real Presence of Christ as dogma BECAUSE the overwhelming majority of the Church Fathers supported that doctrine. It then follows that if a majority of Catholics lobby for same-sex marriage, the Vatican will cave. The Church’s actual position, of course, is that the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is TRUE; the fact that we have mountains of evidence from the first centuries of the Christian era that the doctrine was held by everyone everywhere does not make it any truer than it already is. That so many Fathers bear witness to the truth of the dogma is simply icing on the cake, providing a convenient argument in favor of the belief, but in no way affecting the truth one way or the other.

This is an important point to bear in mind when discussing dogma. There are people who actually believe that the issue of the divinity of Christ was decided by a show of hands. Had the vote at the Council of Nicaea gone the other way, they will tell you, Christians would be fervent Arians, espousing the belief that the Father is God, and Jesus is His son – but not divine. It was just sort of the luck of the draw, a toss of the dice that led Christianity to embrace Trinitarianism. The vote could just as easily have gone the other way….

Protestants will disagree with this assessment (good for them!), but for the wrong reasons (sigh). The Protestant response to this line of thinking seeks to point the skeptic back to the only authority Protestants recognize on this earth, Holy Scripture, insisting that the bishops at Nicaea were simply declaring the plain message of the Bible when they affirmed the divinity of Christ. The Bible, they will tell you, states unequivocally that Jesus is God. Just read through the Bible, they will tell you, and you will find verses such as:

Now this is eternal life: that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent. Jn 17:3

I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. Jn 20:17

But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him. 1 Cor 8:6

Grace, mercy and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love. 2 Jn 1:3

Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.   Rev 7:10

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Phil 2:5-7

Wait!! Protestants will tell you – not THOSE verses. THOSE verses make it sound as if Jesus ISN’T God!!

Exactly. The Arians weren’t total idiots, and they didn’t invent their heresy out of thin air. There are many verses in the Scriptures which might lead someone to conclude that Jesus isn’t God. There are also many verses that appear to make the case that He is God. Protestants, clinging to their “sola Scriptura” error, are pretty much bound to believe that the bishops simply affirmed the clear teaching of Scripture. The problem is, the teaching of Scripture wasn’t clearthat’s how the Arian heresy got started! And since the teaching of Scripture wasn’t clear, the authoritative Church declared infallibly that the teaching of Arius deviated from the deposit of truth.

That’s something that Protestants won’t hear of, yet we see the same thing happening at the Council of Jerusalem nearly 300 years earlier. The “Judaizers” were insisting that Gentile converts must be circumcised. The controversy was decided by the apostles in council. Good luck coming up with the Bible verses that those apostles supposedly used in deciding the question: the clear teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures (the only Scriptures available at that point in time) was that Gentile converts must be circumcised. The Council, however, announced simply that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” to proclaim that circumcision was no longer necessary. A sola Scriptura-based decision? Exactly the opposite! Were the apostles right in their decision? Absolutely! How do we know this?

The Church is indefectible.

Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” By this we understand that God will not allow the Church to formally teach error. Were the Church to dogmatize falsehood, the Father of Lies would have prevailed – it’s as simple as that. Jesus promised that this would never happen. Jesus will never leave His Church (Mt 28:20), and His Church will never leave Him by formally teaching error. He Who is faithful has promised this.

The Church Fathers never proposed that anyone take an opinion poll, formal or informal, on the doctrine of the deity of Christ or on any other issue. Rather, they suggested:

Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the churches? St. Irenaeus of Lyons, c. 180 A.D.

According to Irenaeus, the bishops (AKA “those to whom [the apostles] did commit the churches”) can instruct us in following “the course of the tradition which [the apostles] handed down.” Tradition? Remember the advice St. Paul gave to the Thessalonians:

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us. 2 Thess 2:15

St. Paul did not leave instructions behind only in written form, and neither did the other apostles. Many of the apostles penned no Scripture, and yet spent years verbally instructing those they chose to lead the churches they established. The churches were to follow not only the written commands of the apostles, but their verbal instruction, known as the ‘good deposit,’ as well. We see this reflected in the advice St. Paul gives to St. Timothy, the bishop of Ephesus:

By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. 2 Tim 1:14

Clinging to the ‘good deposit’ means, among other things, being instructed in how to understand the written word of God. When “there should arise a dispute relative to some important question” as St. Irenaeus put it, the bishops meet in council just as the apostles met in the Council of Jerusalem. Their decisions are guided by Holy Tradition and “by the Holy Spirit” – the same Spirit Who guided the decision of the apostles at the Council of Jerusalem when they proclaimed not “The Bible says!” but rather “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” This is not to suggest that the apostles at the Council of Jerusalem or the bishops at the Council of Nicaea were adding new “truths” to the faith revealed to them by Jesus Christ, not at all – they were condemning opinions that strayed from that truth, namely, the heretical notion that baptism does not save us (contrary to 1 Pet 3:21) and the idea that Jesus was a creature (ignoring Jn 20:28). Dogmatic definitions, such as the one pronounced at the Council of Jerusalem, in no wise add to the deposit of faith; they merely affirm the deposit that was originally given to the Church to believe. Therefore, Catholics believe that Gentile converts do not need to be circumcised, and that Jesus is God and is truly physically present in the Holy Eucharist because we believe that the bishops, in union with the bishop of Rome, have been granted the grace of being able to declare doctrinal truth infallibly so that they may proclaim this truth to the world in the name of Jesus Christ upon Whose promises all of this rests.

This is an important point to make to your Protestant friends who find the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception “unbiblical” and who just can’t wait to point out to you that there were certain Church Fathers who believed that Mary had sinned. Not that those Protestants give a flying Fig Newton what the Church Fathers believe – they just think that Catholics determine their theology by tallying up the Fathers, and they’re sure they’ve got you on this one!

Of course there is biblical evidence of Mary’s sinlessness, most especially the theme of Mary as the New Ark of the Covenant so beloved among the Church Fathers:

The ark is verily the holy Virgin, gilded within and without, who received the treasure of universal sanctification. Arise, O Lord, from the Father’s bosom, to raise up again the ruined race of our first parent. St. Gregory Thaumaturgus

As Christ our priest was not chosen by hand of man, so neither was His tabernacle framed by men, but was established by the Holy Ghost; and by the power of God is that tabernacle protected, to be had in everlasting remembrance, Mary, God’s Virgin Mother. St. Dionysus of Alexandria

O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all O (Ark of the) Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which Divinity resides. St. Athanasius of Alexandria

The prophet David danced before the Ark. Now what else should we say the Ark was but holy Mary? The Ark bore within it the tables of the Testament, but Mary bore the Heir of the same Testament itself. The former contained in it the Law, the latter the Gospel. The one had the voice of God, the other His Word. The Ark, indeed, was radiant within and without with the glitter of gold, but holy Mary shone within and without with the splendor of virginity. The one was adorned with earthly gold, the other with heavenly. St. Ambrose of Milan

Many Fathers wrote specifically concerning the sinlessness of Mary:

Mary was a worthy dwelling for Christ, not because of the qualities of her body, but because of her original grace. St. Maximus of Turin

Come, then, and search out your sheep, not through your servants or hired men, but do it yourself. Lift me up bodily and in the flesh, which is fallen in Adam. Lift me up not from Sarah but from Mary, a virgin not only undefiled, but a virgin whom grace had made inviolate, free of every stain of sin. St. Ambrose of Milan

Having excepted the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom, on account of the honor of the Lord, I wish to have absolutely no question when treating of sins—for how do we know what abundance of grace for the total overcoming of sin was conferred upon her, who merited to conceive and bear him in whom there was no sin? St. Augustine of Hippo

O admirable womb of Anne, in which developed and formed little by little an infant all-holy! St. John Damascene

My Lady most holy, all-pure, all-immaculate, all-stainless, all-undefiled, all-incorrupt, all-inviolate . . . spotless robe of Him who clothes himself with light as with a garment . . . flower unfading, purple woven by God, alone most immaculate! St. Ephraem the Syrian

Yet some Fathers, notably Sts. Basil and Chrysostom, were of the opinion that Mary sinned (not as many Fathers as online sources would like you to believe – some Fathers disputed the possibility of her immaculate conception, yet believed that she was sanctified after conception while still in the womb, and led a sinless life). Still, we can state that “The Catholic Church, directed by the Holy Spirit of God, is the pillar and base of truth and has ever held as divinely revealed and as contained in the deposit of heavenly revelation this doctrine concerning the original innocence of the august Virgin — a doctrine which is so perfectly in harmony with her wonderful sanctity and preeminent dignity as Mother of God — and thus has never ceased to explain, to teach and to foster this doctrine age after age in many ways and by solemn acts,” (Ineffabilis Deus) in exactly the same manner that the faithful bishops at the Council of Nicaea insisted that the divinity of Christ was believed from the beginning – despite the fact that the bishops deceived by Arius claimed otherwise! The scriptural references to the sinlessness of Mary can be overlooked or discounted – just as the Arians overlooked and discounted the biblical evidence for Christ’s divinity. Other Bible verses can be misunderstood and misused to make the claim that Mary did in fact sin – just as the Arians misunderstood and misused verses to make the claim that there is no such thing as the Holy Trinity. Discount the one dogma, and you must explain why you do not discount the other. Accept the one, and you have only subjective grounds for refusing to accept the other. The Holy Catholic Church infallibly proclaims both dogmas with the help of the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ Who is with her always.

And so, we Catholics confess that “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.” This is “a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful,” just as is the dogma of the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. A dogma, of course, is either true or false. It is not true simply because I believe it. It is not false because I cannot muster up the faith to believe it. The Church, the very pillar and foundation of the Truth (1 Tim 3:15), proclaims these Truths to the world. Believe them, or don’t.

The Truth remains.


On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Deo omnis gloria!

Halloween nears, and I can’t explain to you what a vast relief it is to me to be Catholic. I embrace wholeheartedly the sentiment expressed by the late Servant of God Fr. John Hardon:

[The Catholic Faith] ‘fits together’ in such a way that each truth we believe sheds light on other truths; the result is a marvelously coherent unity.

The absence of any kind of marvelous “coherent unity” in Evangelical thought was something that had really started to bother me back before I became Catholic. A lot of it stems from Protestantism’s break with historic Christianity. There is simply no continuity with the beliefs of the body of Christ down through the ages. When you bypass the Church’s understanding of Scripture and seek truth solely in Bible verses lifted out of their Scriptural context and separated from historical Christian understanding, you end up with a choppy theology composed of compartmentalized “truths,” a patchwork belief quilt sewn together with Bible-only thread. Catholic convert Steve Ray commented on this disjointed, piecemeal approach to theology:

Without continuity with the early Church and the intervening centuries, Protestantism was like a branch without a tree, a wing without a bird.

In other words, Protestant theology has much of the truth, but it has been disconnected from other truths, so encountering it is like finding a perfectly good bird’s wing – but where’s the rest of the creature? I thought of it, rather gruesomely, as shaking a hand outstretched in welcome, only to find that that hand was connected to… nothing. Considering that we were talking about my belief system, it all seemed just short of macabre.

Contemplate for a moment the Evangelical acceptance of artificial contraception. Evangelicals break with 2,000 years of Christian condemnation of contraception because this practice is nowhere forbidden in so many words in the Bible. The thinking goes like this:

  1. Abortion is clearly evil because you are ending a life. Remember, thou shalt not kill (the 6th Commandment for Protestants – Catholics follow St. Augustine’s system and consider this the 5th commandment).
  2. Euthanasia is clearly evil because you are ending a life. See #1.
  3. The death penalty is clearly SUPER because the Bible teaches that God gave the state the power to end the lives of certain people. THOU shalt not kill, but your elected officials certainly may.

In this scheme of things, contraception is fine because you are not killing; you are merely preventing life from coming into existence. There is no “thou shalt not prevent the conception of a new human life” in Scripture. Of course, we’re talking about contraception within marriage. Contraception outside of marriage isn’t a sin per se, but:

  1. SEX outside of marriage IS a sin. Thou shalt not commit adultery! Flee fornication!
  2. Christian kids are taught abstinence in sex education classes and given chastity rings because God has commanded chastity until marriage.
  3. Masturbation is not prohibited in the Bible and therefore is not a sin – unless you experience lustful thoughts when committing the act. Lustful thoughts ARE mentioned in the Bible and are condemned. That’s why pornography is wrong.
  4. Homosexual acts are a sin. God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. God didn’t rain fire and brimstone down on Sodom and Gomorrah because He disapproved of their system of municipal lien certificates!!
  5. Polygamy is seriously wrong. Serial monogamy, however, is fine, as long as your divorces have been “biblical.”
  6. Celibacy is just kind of weird.

See how it goes? It’s a set of rules based upon verses or compilations of verses in the Bible. No verse – no rule.
No real connection between them – God has for our own good simply prohibited certain things; He makes the rules, and we must inform ourselves of the rules and be careful to keep them.

Compare that approach with the teaching of the Catholic Church on the subject of “human life” and the 5th commandment:

Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.

In the account of Abel’s murder by his brother Cain, Scripture reveals the presence of anger and envy in man, consequences of original sin, from the beginning of human history. Man has become the enemy of his fellow man. God declares the wickedness of this fratricide: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.”

The covenant between God and mankind is interwoven with reminders of God’s gift of human life and man’s murderous violence:

For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning. . . . Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.

The Old Testament always considered blood a sacred sign of life. This teaching remains necessary for all time.

Scripture specifies the prohibition contained in the fifth commandment: “Do not slay the innocent and the righteous.” The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator. The law forbidding it is universally valid: it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere.

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord recalls the commandment, “You shall not kill,” and adds to it the proscription of anger, hatred, and vengeance. Going further, Christ asks his disciples to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies. He did not defend himself and told Peter to leave his sword in its sheath.

The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not.”

Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:

If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.

Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others.
The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.

The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

The fifth commandment forbids doing anything with the intention of indirectly bringing about a person’s death. The moral law prohibits exposing someone to mortal danger without grave reason, as well as refusing assistance to a person in danger.

The acceptance by human society of murderous famines, without efforts to remedy them, is a scandalous injustice and a grave offense. Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family indirectly commit homicide, which is imputable to them.

Unintentional killing is not morally imputable. But one is not exonerated from grave offense if, without proportionate reasons, he has acted in a way that brings about someone’s death, even without the intention to do so.

Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.

My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.

Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:

You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.

God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.

The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation:

“The inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state; they belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origin. Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard every human being’s right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death.

Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.

Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible.

Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.

Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator.
The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.

Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.

Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted. The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable. Palliative care is a special form of disinterested charity. As such it should be encouraged.

You see? The Church knows the Bible verses – no question about that. But she has spent 2,000 years thinking about the 5th Commandment, “pondering these things in her heart,” and presents us with a seamlessly woven teaching on human life, encompassing the connections between abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty along with “usurious and avaricious dealings” leading to “hunger and death,” and the sin of self murder (and much more – I was forced to condense this), explaining to us that it is wrong to take a human life, yet showing us why under certain circumstances self defense, the death penalty, and the refusal of “overzealous treatment” can be legitimate options, whereas abortion and euthanasia can never be. These seemingly unconnected issues are all intertwined, because Human life is sacred – it is a gift from God.

Okay, so all this ties together beautifully, but where’s the connection to the Church’s prohibition on contraception? Isn’t that just arbitrary?

The tradition of the Church has understood the sixth commandment [thou shalt not commit adultery] as encompassing the whole of human sexuality.

Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.

The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift.

The chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. This integrity ensures the unity of the person; it is opposed to any behavior that would impair it. It tolerates neither a double life nor duplicity in speech.

Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom.  The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy. “Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint. Man gains such dignity when, ridding himself of all slavery to the passions, he presses forward to his goal by freely choosing what is good and, by his diligence and skill, effectively secures for himself the means suited to this end.”

Whoever wants to remain faithful to his baptismal promises and resist temptations will want to adopt the means for doing so: self-knowledge, practice of an ascesis adapted to the situations that confront him, obedience to God’s commandments, exercise of the moral virtues, and fidelity to prayer. “Indeed it is through chastity that we are gathered together and led back to the unity from which we were fragmented into multiplicity.”

The virtue of chastity comes under the cardinal virtue of temperance, which seeks to permeate the passions and appetites of the senses with reason.

Chastity represents an eminently personal task; it also involves a cultural effort, for there is “an interdependence between personal betterment and the improvement of society.” Chastity presupposes respect for the rights of the person, in particular the right to receive information and an education that respect the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life.

Chastity is a moral virtue. It is also a gift from God, a grace, a fruit of spiritual effort. The Holy Spirit enables one whom the water of Baptism has regenerated to imitate the purity of Christ.

Charity is the form of all the virtues. Under its influence, chastity appears as a school of the gift of the person. Self-mastery is ordered to the gift of self.  Chastity leads him who practices it to become a witness to his neighbor of God’s fidelity and loving kindness.

All the baptized are called to chastity.  The Christian has “put on Christ,” the model for all chastity. All Christ’s faithful are called to lead a chaste life in keeping with their particular states of life. At the moment of his Baptism, the Christian is pledged to lead his affective life in chastity.

“People should cultivate [chastity] in the way that is suited to their state of life. Some profess virginity or consecrated celibacy which enables them to give themselves to God alone with an undivided heart in a remarkable manner. Others live in the way prescribed for all by the moral law, whether they are married or single.” Married people are called to live conjugal chastity; others practice chastity in continence.

Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure.  Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.

By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.”

Fornication is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children.  Moreover, it is a grave scandal when there is corruption of the young.

Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other.  It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials.

Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life.  They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

Sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman. In marriage the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion. Marriage bonds between baptized persons are sanctified by the sacrament.

Sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and woman commit themselves totally to one another until death.”

“The acts in marriage by which the intimate and chaste union of the spouses takes place are noble and honorable; the truly human performance of these acts fosters the self-giving they signify and enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude.” Sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure:

The Creator himself . . . established that in the [generative] function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. Therefore, the spouses do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment. They accept what the Creator has intended for them. At the same time, spouses should know how to keep themselves within the limits of just moderation.

The spouses’ union achieves the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couple’s spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family.

So why is contraception wrong? Because we’re not just talking about “life.” Plants have “life.” Animals have “life.” We are talking about “human life.” “Human life is sacred” – remember? Why?

Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, Who is its sole end.

There is a fundamental difference between our lives and the lives of animals – God is our end. He has created us in His image for Himself. It is His will that human beings become what He has created them to be; in order to do that, we must live truly human lives (see above).

We humans were not created to live for ourselves; we were created to live as God lives, in a constant pouring out of ourselves for Him and for others. To give ourselves to God and to others is the purpose for which we were created, because God is the Eternal Giver and Eternal Gift. Human life exists that it may pour itself out as a gift, in imitation of the Holy Trinity, the Persons of which give Themselves completely and unceasingly to each other. The Trinity is, in other words, Three Persons, One Life.

Married persons make a gift of their body and their life to their spouse, to the extent that they become one body. Celibate persons make a gift of their body to God, while making a gift of their life to their fellow man. No one is to keep his or her body or life for himself or herself; all are meant to give themselves, because we were created to give ourselves away. Animals procreate. Our sexuality becomes truly human when and only “when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman,” that is, when it is both “procreative and unitive.” We must lay down our claim to our own life, giving all that we are, withholding nothing – including the capacity for creating new life that God gave us. Truly human sexual acts must be open to the gift of life. What would make withholding your fertility from God and your spouse acceptable when everything that you have and are must be given in love? Your “total gift” would be a sham….

Contraception is wrong because “Human life is sacred.”

The reason the Evangelical system of dependence on explicit Bible verses breaks down is that the Bible is not explicit in many instances. Take 1 Corinthians 6:18 – most Bible versions translate this as “Flee immorality.” Fine. Define “immorality”! It is being actively redefined in our day, to the point where many Christians can remain firmly ensconced in their sins and yet feel no twinge of conscience when reading that verse – as the Protestant acceptance of artificial contraception demonstrates! And under the “Bible-only” system, a great deal has to be fudged – for example, the Bible nowhere actually condemns polygamy. The Old Testament speaks positively of it, and the New Testament is basically silent on the subject. Without a coherent system of thought such as the Catholic Church possesses, Christians really are adrift, fending for themselves, clinging to isolated pieces of theological driftwood floating in our modern-day sea of moral relativism….

The Catholic Church has a Theology of the Body, a Theology of Life, and a Theology of Work, just as the human body has a nervous system, a circulatory system and a respiratory system – all systems serving the same body and all interdependent. Bible-only Christians have Bible verses that teach them what they can and cannot do, like parts on a factory assembly line. Put them all together and you’ve got a theology – but it’s got no soul.

Which is why every year around Halloween, my thoughts drift back to this subject. Evangelical teaching is a bit like Frankenstein’s monster, a hand sutured onto an arm sewn onto a shoulder. Catholic teaching is organic; it is a living body of doctrine.

It is theology as God meant it to be.


On the memorial of St. Frumentius of Ethiopia

Deo omnis gloria!

Photo credits: Patchwork Girl by André Koehne/Wikimedia Commons

Over the past 20 years or so, Protestant leaders have grown awfully uncomfortable with a growing trend: Protestant traffic heading in the direction of Rome. And not just any Protestants – while Joe and Jane Pewwarmer may be comfortably ensconced at the corner Baptist or Presbyterian church, Joe and Jane’s pastor and the theologians who taught him may very well be suiting up to swim the Tiber. Over the past few decades such Protestant theologians, philosophers and educators as Francis Beckwith, Thomas Howard, J. Budziszewski, Reinhard Hütter, Bruce Marshall, Trent Dougherty, Robert Koons, Jay Richards, R.R. Reno, Joshua Hochschild, Leroy Huizenga, Richard John Neuhaus, Robert Wilken, Paul Quist, Richard Ballard, Paul Abbe, Thomas McMichael, Mickey Mattox, David Fagerberg, Jason Stellman and many more have left Protestantism for the Catholic Church – and I know this from Protestant articles and websites expressing shock at their conversion. At a loss to explain the defection of these once solidly Protestant luminaries, and unwilling to admit that these people might be reconciling with the Church because they have found the fullness of the Truth therein, Protestant apologists have latched onto a common thread in many conversion stories. Converts to Catholicism often complain that as Protestants they were kept in the dark regarding Church history. Take as an example the tales of those who studied theology at Protestant seminaries:

Over the next year I read several books on Church history. I read the works of men I had never heard of before: Anthony of the Desert, Cyril of Jerusalem, Clement of Alexandria, Basil, Ambrose, Eusebius, Ignatius of Antioch. It felt like finding new friends, Christians who knew my Lord so intimately. But their words also profoundly shook my Evangelical theology. The fact that these men were Catholic made me embarrassed and indignant. In all my years as a Christian I had never heard of these people, let alone studied their writings. I didn’t know much about the early Christian Church. In seminary (we attended Biola, in Southern California) we had been taught to believe that after the death of the Apostles, the Church slid immediately into error and stayed that way until Luther nailed his Theses to the door, and then the “real” Christians came out of hiding. (Kristine Franklin)

Occasional references to St. Augustine did not obscure the fact that the majority of church history was ignored. (“Anthony“)

I had studied some early Church history, but too much of it was from perspectives limited by Protestant history textbooks. I was shocked to discover in the writings of the first-, second- and third-century Christians a very high view of the Church and liturgy, very much unlike the views of the typical Evangelical Protestant. (Steve Wood)

We had never been taught any church history between the time of the apostles and Luther. I first heard of the “Church Fathers” in a Greek class in college. As I translated Irenaeus’ writings from the Greek, the truth of what he had written amazed me. I wondered why I had never been told of him before. None of my theology courses in college ever mentioned the Church Fathers. We were never given any devotional readings beyond what Luther wrote. (Kathy McDonald)

Hmmm… so Church history is the virus behind Catholic fever? They’re demanding access to Church history? Can we manufacture some sort of vaccine against that?

And thus today’s Protestant apologists have to know not only their Augustine, but their Athanasius, their Cyril (of Alexandria and of Jerusalem), their Irenaeus and their Vincent of Lerins (okay, maybe not Vincent of Lerins – “Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est” and all that). These brave souls familiarize themselves with the Fathers not so that they can explain the actual theology of the early Church to fellow Protestants (that would never do), but so that they can extract certain quotes from their writings and distill them into a “proof vaccine,” purporting to demonstrate that core Protestant doctrines were theological staples of the early Church, thereby inoculating potential upstarts (who then believe that they know what the Fathers taught) against Catholicism.

Epidemic contained.

It’s kind of funny, and it’s kind of sad. Because Protestants have their own version of what they think the Catholic Church teaches (you know, works-righteousness, Mary worship, a sinless pope, the Bible is wrong when it contradicts Holy Mother Church, etc.), they believe that by finding remarks in the Church Fathers which indicate that we are indeed “saved by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (which the Church has been insisting for, oh, about 2,000 years or so now), or that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (there’s never been any argument from the Church on that, either), they have proved Catholicism wrong. It is this fundamental refusal to hear what Catholics are saying when we profess that we can’t work our way to Heaven or that “the Sacred Scriptures contain the Word of God and, because they are inspired they are truly the Word of God” that causes Protestants wielding the Church Fathers to make themselves look so silly. The Fathers were Catholic, you know. There’s just no getting around that point.

Consider the writings of the Church Fathers on the subject of the Holy Scriptures. Modern-day Protestant authors, believing that it is Catholic Church policy to hide the Bible under a bushel whenever it “contradicts” Catholic doctrine, will gladly dish up quotes which are supposed to “prove” that the Fathers were every bit as “sola Scriptura” as Luther or Calvin, quotes like these:

Since, therefore, the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all, although all do not believe them; and since they proclaim that one only God, to the exclusion of all others, formed all things by His word, whether visible or invisible, heavenly or earthly, in the water or under the earth, as I have shown from the very words of Scripture; and since the very system of creation to which we belong testifies, by what falls under our notice, that one Being made and governs it,—those persons will seem truly foolish who blind their eyes to such a clear demonstration, and will not behold the light of the announcement [made to them]; but they put fetters upon themselves, and every one of them imagines, by means of their obscure interpretations of the parables, that he has found out a God of his own. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, 2nd century Church Father

Scripture can indeed be understood by Luther’s proverbial ploughboy – so says Irenaeus!

Hmm… then why did Irenaeus even bother writing his monumental “Against Heresies” if everyone could just pick up a copy of the Scriptures and understand them? Sure, there were bad guys who twisted the perspicuous Scriptures to their own ends:

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. St. Irenaeus of Lyons

So, when heretics twisted the Scriptures, Irenaeus advised 2nd-century Christians to just pull a copy of the KJV out of their hip pocket and set the losers straight, right?

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it. St. Irenaeus of Lyons

That quote from Irenaeus demonstrates Sacred Tradition in action. Note the unity of the Faith that Irenaeus is touting; exactly the opposite of the divisions that plague sola Scriptura adherents running around with KJV’s in their hip pockets. That’s because the Church that Irenaeus defended did NOT believe in sola Scriptura – all believed the same thing because all were taught the same thing by the authoritative Church which “clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood” the Scriptures according to the Tradition handed down by the apostles!

The Catholic Church’s point exactly: Scripture? YES! Tradition? YES! Quotes 1 and 2 and 3? YES! YES! YES!

Undaunted, many Protestant authors trot out St. Athanasius in defense of the indefensible doctrine of sola Scriptura, using this quote:

The holy and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth. St. Athanasius of Alexandria, 4th-century Church Father

Sounds pretty “sola!” Yet this was the same Athanasius who thundered:

But beyond these sayings [of the Bible], let us look at the very tradition, teaching and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept. Upon this the Church is founded, and he who should fall away from it should not be a Christian, and should no longer be so called. St. Athanasius

So, the Scriptures, rightly understood through Sacred Tradition, are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth – hardly a Protestant sentiment. When you harmonize ALL that a particular Church Father wrote, rather than pulling statements out of context, there’s simply no way you end up with a proto-Protestant 2nd-, 3rd, or 4th-century Church. Athanasius himself grumbled about the cherry-picking of the Fathers who had gone before him:

Yes, [Church Father Dionysius] wrote it, and we too admit that his letter runs thus. But just as he wrote this, he wrote also very many other letters, and they ought to consult those also, in order that the faith of the man may be made clear from them all, and not from this alone. St. Athanasius

Selective quoting got mighty tiresome even back in those days….

Protestant apologists will earnestly endeavor to persuade you that the Church Fathers held Scripture in high regard, proclaimed the authority of the Bible and believed Scripture to be sufficient in itself, citing passages such as “How can we adopt those things which we do not find in the holy Scriptures?” and “The sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth” and “There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures and no other source.” If you look into this, you will find that it is certainly true – the Fathers held Scripture in high regard, proclaimed the authority of the Bible, and believed Scripture to be sufficient in itself. Those same Protestant authors will, however, decline to inform you that those same Fathers held Holy Tradition in equally high regard, proclaimed the authority of the Church, and declared that when heretics came up with novel approaches to the interpretation of Scripture, Tradition was essential to protect the orthodox interpretation of those Scriptures. Holy Tradition, the Fathers claimed, makes it possible for the Church to say, “THIS is the interpretation of Scripture that the apostles taught and which has been handed down to us – that’s why your interpretation of Scripture is wrong” when heretics twist the Scriptures and devise new doctrines.

Which doesn’t stop Protestant apologists from propping the Fathers up like ventriloquists’ dummies to mouth the Reformers’ doctrine of sola fide (faith alone). As Frank Beckwith pointed out in his Return to Rome, St. Augustine is often pressed into the service of Martin Luther’s pet doctrine:

St. Augustine of Hippo: [Grace] is bestowed on us, not because we have done good works, but that we may be able to do them – in other words, not because we have fulfilled the Law, but in order that we may be able to fulfill the Law.

See? St. Augustine was Protestant in his understanding of justification!

Or, as Beckwith puts it:

Now, if that’s all one read from the Fathers, one may be led to think that the Reformation attempted to restore what the Church had once embraced, or at least implicitly held, from its earliest days.

And that is, obviously, the fervent hope – that that’s all a questioning Protestant will bother to read of the Fathers – the “proof-texts.” As Dr. Beckwith points out, the understanding of “grace” which St. Augustine propounded is consistent with Protestant theology as well as with Catholic theology. No Catholic would find that quote on the subject of grace at all disturbing, because justification by faith is what Catholics believe. Protestants, however, have a tough time reconciling other quotes from that same Church Father with the Protestant belief system:

St. Augustine of Hippo: We run, therefore, whenever we make advance; and our wholeness runs with us in our advance (just as a sore is said to run when the wound is in process of a sound and careful treatment), in order that we may be in every respect perfect, without any infirmity of sin whatever result which God not only wishes, but even causes and helps us to accomplish. And this God’s grace does, in co-operation with ourselves, through Jesus Christ our Lord, as well by commandments, sacraments, and examples, as by His Holy Spirit also; through whom there is hiddenly shed abroad in our hearts . . . that love, “which makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered,” . . . until wholeness and salvation be perfected in us, and God be manifested to us as He will be seen in His eternal truth.

As Dr. Beckwith points out, the sentiments in this quote from Augustine are reflected, not in Protestant theology (Calvin forbid!), but in a very Catholic statement on justification:

Now they (adults) are disposed unto the said justice, when, excited and assisted by divine grace, conceiving faith by hearing, they are freely moved towards God, believing those things to be true which God has revealed and promised,-and this especially, that God justifies the impious by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; and when, understanding themselves to be sinners, they, by turning themselves, from the fear of divine justice whereby they are profitably agitated, to consider the mercy of God, are raised unto hope, confiding that God will be propitious to them for Christ’s sake; and they begin to love Him as the fountain of all justice; and are therefore moved against sins by a certain hatred and detestation, to wit, by that penitence which must be performed before baptism: lastly, when they purpose to receive baptism, to begin a new life, and to keep the commandments of God. Concerning this disposition it is written; He that cometh to God, must believe that he is, and is a rewarder to them that seek him; and, Be of good faith, son, thy sins are forgiven thee; and, The fear of the Lord driveth out sin; and, Do penance, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost; and, Going, therefore, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; finally, Prepare your hearts unto the Lord.

This disposition, or preparation, is followed by Justification itself, which is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, that so he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting. The Council of Trent on justification


The point is that St. Augustine can get an “Amen!” from Catholics on both quotes 1 and 2. Protestants, on the other hand, would much prefer that St. Gus had quit while he was ahead, so to speak. From a Protestant standpoint, the “proof-text” was nifty; the other stuff, not so much….

This kind of proof-texting is inflicted upon the writings of numerous Fathers. The moral of the story: Catholic fever is going around. If you have a vested interest in remaining Protestant, for Luther’s sake don’t sit down and actually read the Church Fathers to learn what they really thought! Get your vaccination against Rome disease: read a few quotes meticulously compiled by Protestant apologists and leave it at that. It’s safer, like a vaccine made of dead cells is a whole lot safer than the real living deal. Catholicism can be highly contagious; get your inoculation today, lest you come down with a bad case of the fullness of the Truth.


On the memorial of St. Isaac Jogues and Companions

Deo omnis gloria!


Photo credits: Woman receiving rubella vaccination, School of Public Health of the State of Minas Gerais (ESP-MG), Brazil, by Sandra Rugio/Wikimedia Commons

Modern-day heretics have fallen on hard times. All the really good heresies are taken – you can invent some new kind of science fiction religion like Scientology (snort), but heretically speaking, the best you can do is to reinvent the ancient wheel. When 21st-century Evangelical pastors go rogue and deny the existence or the eternity of hell, they are stepping into a heretical tradition that goes back at least to the 3rd century. The Catholic Church has condemned this view as being contradictory to both Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. The writings of the Church Fathers of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries make clear the traditional Christian understanding of hell:

Corrupters of families will not inherit the kingdom of God. And if they who do these things according to the flesh suffer death, how much more if a man corrupt by evil teaching the faith of God for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified? A man become so foul will depart into unquenchable fire: and so will anyone who listens to him. St. Ignatius of Antioch, early 2nd century

We have been taught that only they may aim at immortality who have lived a holy and virtuous life near to God. We believe that they who live wickedly and do not repent will be punished in everlasting fire. St. Justin Martyr, mid 2nd century

Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, ‘every knee should bow, of things in heaven,, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess’ to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send ‘spiritual wickednesses,’ and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning of their Christian course, and others from the date of their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, late 2nd century

All souls are immortal, even those of the wicked. Yet, it would be better for them if they were not deathless. For they are punished with the endless vengeance of quenchless fire. Since they do not die, it is impossible for them to have an end put to their misery. St. Clement of Alexandria, early 3rd century

The grief at punishment will then be without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late will they believe in
eternal punishment, who would not believe in eternal life. St. Cyprian of Carthage, mid 3rd century

…if a man is a sinner, he shall receive an eternal body, fitted to endure the penalties of sins, that he may burn eternally in fire, nor ever be consumed. And righteously will God assign this portion to either company; for we do nothing without the body. We blaspheme with the mouth, and with the mouth we pray. With the body we commit fornication, and with the body we keep chastity. With the hand we rob, and by the hand we bestow alms; and the rest in like manner. Since then the body has been our minister in all things, it shall also share with us in the future the fruits of the past. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, mid 4th century

Of course, the “traditional Christian understanding” of anything isn’t really of interest to your average Evangelical pastor – if it were, he couldn’t comfortably remain an Evangelical pastor, since traditionally Christians have believed in the Real Presence, the necessity of final perseverance, baptismal regeneration, Purgatory, the veneration of saints, etc., all of which he as an Evangelical rejects. “The Bible alone” is the yardstick by which all of his beliefs are measured. Jesus did happen to mention hell once or twice, though:

His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. Mt 3:12

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. Mt. 5:22

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Mt 10:28

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. And the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Mt 13:41-42

… throwing the wicked into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Mt 13:50

And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. Mt 18: 8-9

You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Mt 23:33

Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels …’ Mt 25:41

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to enter eternal life with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands. Mk 9:43

A lot depends, though, on how you choose to take Jesus’ words. Did He mean for His teachings on hell to be taken literally? Should we not rather understand them figuratively? How did His followers understand the doctrine of hell?

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might…. 2 Thess 1:5-9

…God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment…. 2 Pet 2:4

These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever. Jude 12-13

And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name. Rev 14:11

And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. Rev 19:20

And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Rev 20:10

But the dirge of eternal torment strikes some people as distinctly off-key. Are we to believe that an unfathomably merciful God, a God Who is Love, will allow people to suffer eternally? What about the verses that appear to claim that all people will be saved?

“in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19).

“as one trespass led to condemnation for all people, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all people” (Rom. 5:18). Like Jesus’ statement,

“When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).

To advocates of universalism (the belief that all will be saved in the end), there may be a hell, but whether or not anyone actually goes there is the question. Even if some folks do end up in hell, in the end they will get out. Picture hell as a version of Purgatory, if you will, only less pleasant. Those who reject God in this life will be tormented until they have been punished sufficiently for their sins – and then admitted to eternal bliss. Proponents of the annihilation theory, on the other hand, believe that those who rebel against God will cease to exist, rather than suffer for all eternity. Either way, while the flames of hell may be eternal, there’s no reason to believe that one’s suffering might be. After all, they ask, how can the Good News be good if it boils down to “Believe in Jesus or God will send you to hell to suffer forever”?

Jesus did seem to dwell on the topic of hell, though; it was presumably important to Him to warn His listeners concerning the reality of what He Himself referred to as “everlasting fire.” So how to understand these verses?

Protestants have been arguing over the “plain meaning” of Scripture since about 5 minutes after Luther nailed his Theses to the door. Where can they turn if a brother will not understand Scripture the way they understand Scripture? One Evangelical website attempts to straighten universalists out by referring them back to the decisions of Church councils:

Universalism was taught by Origen (185-254 A.D.) but was declared heresy by the Council of Constantinople in 543 A.D. It became popular again in the 19th century and is gaining traction in many Christian circles today.

How exactly does that statement strengthen the Evangelical argument against universalism? Many Church councils made many declarations which are rejected lock, stock and barrel by Evangelical Protestants – the declaration of Mary as the Mother of God by the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. comes to mind. Since when do the pronouncements of Church councils carry any weight with Evangelicals? Evangelicals referring heretics back to the Church councils is like a rebellious teenager insisting that his siblings shut up and do what Mom says. In an Evangelical context, you are stepping outside your own self-imposed boundaries if you call upon the decisions of Church councils as proof that your understanding of Scripture is correct. You can’t reject the conclusions of the councils when they disagree with your “Bible alone” conclusions, and then trot them out to make others behave.

So, how are Catholics in a better position? Protestants don’t have a corner on universalist teachings; there are Catholics who have questioned the existence and the eternal nature of hell just as persuasively.

Catholics have the teaching Magisterium of the Church. Church teaching is informed by the words of the Old and the New Testament, the writings of the early Church Fathers, the decisions of Church councils, and the teachings of the popes, as well as the theological understanding of the saints down through the ages. The last paragraph of the Athanasian Creed (c. early 6th century), for example, proclaims the eternity of hell:

He shall come to judge the living and the dead; at His coming all men have to arise again with their bodies and will render an account of their own deeds: and those who have done good, will go into life everlasting, but those who have done evil, into eternal fire.

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) had this to say about those consigned to hell:

All of them will rise with their own bodies, which they now wear, so as to receive according to their deserts, whether these be good or bad; for the latter perpetual punishment with the devil, for the former eternal glory with Christ..

St. Thomas Aquinas also wrote that hell exists and will last eternally:

Scripture repeatedly tells us that the punishment of hell is everlasting. For instance, St. Matthew says that “the wicked shall go into everlasting punishment.” As reward is measured to meet merit, so punishment is measured to meet guilt. But the guilt of mortal sin is the guilt of completely rejecting God and offending him whose majesty is infinite. The guilt of such a sin deserves unending punishment.

Pope Benedict XII discussed the Beatific Vision in his Benedictus Deus (1336); he had this to say about punishment in hell:

Moreover we define that according to the general disposition of God, the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin go down into hell immediately after death and there suffer the pain of hell.

As Avery Cardinal Dulles summed it up: “The constant teaching of the Catholic Church supports the idea that there are two classes: the saved and the damned.” In addition to that “constant teaching,” when the eternal nature of punishment in hell is called into question Catholics can quote from a more recent pope, Blessed John Paul II:

God is the infinitely good and merciful Father. But man, called to respond to him freely, can unfortunately choose to reject His love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself forever from joyful communion with Him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or hell. It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life. The very dimension of unhappiness which this obscure condition brings can in a certain way be sensed in the light of some of the terrible experiences we have suffered which, as is commonly said, make life “hell”.

In a theological sense however, hell is something else: it is the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it. It is the state of those who definitively reject the Father’s mercy, even at the last moment of their life.

Can God, who has loved man so much, permit the man who rejects Him to be condemned to eternal torment? And yet, the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel he speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Mt 25:46).

No mincing of theological concepts there. According to Blessed John Paul, those punished in hell are punished eternally. His successor, Benedict XVI, was equally forthright:

Jesus came to tell us that He wants us all in heaven and that hell, of which so little is said in our time, exists and is eternal for those who close their hearts to His love.

No surprise, then, that the Catechism speaks bluntly of hell:

We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love Him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against Him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from Him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are His brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from Him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”

Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that He “will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,” and that He will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”

The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with Him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where “men will weep and gnash their teeth.”

God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance”: Father, accept this offering from your whole family. Grant us your peace in this life, save us from final damnation, and count us among those you have chosen.

And there’s the answer to the question “how can the Good News be good if it boils down to ‘Believe in Jesus or God will send you to hell to suffer forever'”?

He who does not love remains in death. 1 Jn 3:14

The truth is that we are all dead in our sins with no hope of Heaven. The Good News is that there’s a way out of that condition. There is an escape from eternal death: Him!
You don’t have to go to hell! But you will if you don’t follow the Way out….

So when Father Errant assures your congregation that they can stop worrying – there’s probably no hell, and if there is a hell nobody’s in it, and if somebody is actually in it, he’ll get out sooner or later, ask Father which part of “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell” he doesn’t understand. The existence of hell and its eternity are dogmas of the Faith. The Magisterium does not teach us to believe that Jesus was wasting His breath warning that you might end up in hell when, in reality, God is too much of a cosmic softie to allow that eventuality to occur. To teach otherwise is to lead the faithful astray.

And make sure you pray for Father Errant, that God may grant that he not be among those to whom St. Pio, whose feast we celebrate today, was referring when he quipped:

They’ll believe in hell when they get there.


On the memorial of St. Pio of Pietrelcina

Deo omnis gloria!

Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes

Here is Part Thirty-Six of my series on the canon of Scripture. You can begin at the beginning, or just jump in here as we begin to wrap it all up!

A new day begins for our Protestant protagonist. As he lays his books and notes aside, he mentally runs through his conclusions concerning the canon of Scripture. He recognizes that for a Bible-only Christian, the prospect of a fallible canon is an unimaginable disaster….

You are standing in your living room with a cup of coffee in one hand and a piece of toast in the other, watching the dawn illuminate the eastern sky. You were up all night, but you know it was worth it. All the research that you have put into this subject of the deuterocanonical books and the canon of Scripture has made clear to you that there are two basic approaches to this question among Protestants:

First of all, there is the assertion by R.C. Sproul that Protestants must content themselves with a “fallible collection of infallible books.” When you first heard your pastor say that, you nearly keeled over! But now it has become clear to you why Dr. Sproul insists that this is the best that Protestants can hope for.

You understand now that the question of the canon boils down to the issue of authority. Who has the authority to discern which books are inspired Scripture and to proclaim that discernment? In order to preserve the Reformation pillar of ‘sola Scriptura’ (that is, Scripture and only Scripture is the authoritative basis for all our beliefs), Dr. Sproul feels that Christians must admit that there is no way we can claim to know for sure that our canon is infallible! Think about it – if Scripture alone is the only infallible, authoritative source of our beliefs, then in order for us to have an infallible canon, Scripture would have to include an inspired ‘table of contents’ (something along the lines of some extra verses at the end of the Gospel of John perhaps that read “And Jesus said unto his disciples, ‘Verily, these shall be the books which ye shall regard as Holy Scripture, namely, ….'”). Since we have no such thing, Dr. Sproul logically concludes that we will never know for sure.

So, in order to keep the principle of sola Scriptura in working order – you have to resort to the “fallible collection of infallible books” assumption! If your ‘life verse’ is Revelation 1:5, you just have to say “I’m hoping and praying with all my heart that Luther and Zwingli were wrong – that the book of Revelation and this verse upon which I’ve based my Christian walk are actually, really and truly Holy Scripture!

After all, the belief that there are 66 and only 66 books in the Bible is an extra-Biblical belief!

That’s not good enough for you. A lot of folks who believe that we cannot know that the 66-book canon is the correct one then go on to state that they derive a sense of security from ‘providence’ – in other words, the idea that God could not leave His church adrift in a foggy sea of ignorance, so OF COURSE the Protestant canon must be the right one – we just can’t ‘prove’ that!

But isn’t that what this whole Apocrypha question is about? Did God leave His church adrift in a foggy sea of ignorance for 1500 years after the Resurrection, until the Reformers came along to straighten things out?? The argument from “providence” runs into one great big difficulty: either the canon that included the Apocrypha for 1500 years was right, and the Protestant canon of the past 500 years is wrong, or the canon that included the Apocrypha for 1500 years was wrong, and the Protestant canon of the past 500 years is right. God either abandoned His church to the errors of the Apocrypha for hundreds and hundreds of years, or Protestants have been limping along with amputated Bibles since the Reformation! Unless you’re willing to say that there were NO Christians on earth for 1500 years before the Reformation, you’re claiming that God did leave His church adrift with a bungled canon for centuries and centuries….

Does it matter? It most certainly does! Everything Protestants believe hinges on the testimony of Holy Scripture, and on the answer to the central question which reverberates down through the ages: “Who do you say that I am?” There is simply no way to answer Jesus’ question with anything approaching certainty if we cannot say that we know that the books we consider to be Holy Scripture actually are Holy Scripture, and that we can be certain that no books of Scripture somehow got left out of that catalogue. Whether Protestants proclaim that Jesus is (in the words of C.S. Lewis) a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord, we must do so based on the evidence presented in the Scriptures, with the confidence that there are no other books of Scripture out there which would cause us to modify our position! The same goes for every other doctrine we place our faith in – we can be fully assured of the correctness of our beliefs only when we are fully assured that there is no other ‘Scripture’ out there which would cause us to change our mind! We can’t cut our canon to fit our theological bed! Our ‘Scriptures’ cannot be determined by our pre-existing convictions – if all our beliefs have to come from the Scriptures, it is ESSENTIAL that we know which books are in the Bible.

So, if the ‘fallible canon’ proposition isn’t good enough for you (and it’s apparently not good enough for many Christians), then you fall back on the second Protestant option: the urban legend (propagated by the popular authors) of a mythical land where all the Christians woke up one morning and just KNEW which books were Holy Scripture – no Church council told them this, because there is no authority for the Christian other than the authority of Holy Scripture! These Christians unanimously accepted the Hebrew canon, and rejected the deuterocanonical books. Christians spontaneously recognized New Testament Scripture when they heard it read to them in their churches and rejected anything spurious. “We can discern which books are Scripture by relying on the theology that we get from the books we have decided are Scripture!!” is the motto of this happy land – a land which can be found nowhere in the historical record….

Then, of course, there’s the inconvenient issue of the confusion among the Reformers concerning the canon. That has to be MAJORLY downplayed to make it sound like it was just a few minor questions that troubled a few folks for a few years, rather than over 100 years of ‘every man for himself’ as far as which books belonged in the Bible. According to this part of the fable, the spiritual descendants of the Reformers apparently just woke up one morning and KNEW which books belonged in the Bible– just as the first Christians had.

At that point, of course, you have to start making up criteria to explain the inclusion or exclusion of books, criteria like “was the book written by a prophet of God?” or “was the writer confirmed by acts of God?” Criteria such as these look so convincing at first glance, and yet upon further examination they prove to be completely unworkable. You have noticed that many different Protestant scholars point out the logical inconsistencies inherent in these ‘tests of canonicity.’ They note the heavy reliance on assumption. There is no way to know, they stress, if these criteria were actually consciously employed by the folks who determined the canon since there is no documentation of these criteria in the historical record. The well-respected Herman Ridderbos writes about this:

As their artificiality indicates, these arguments are a posteriori in character. To hold that the church was led to accept these writings by such criteria, in fact to even speak here of a criteria canonicitatis is to go too far. It is rather clear that we here have to do with more or less successful attempts to cover with arguments what had already been fixed for a long time and for the fixation of which such reasoning or such a criterion had never been employed.

In plain English, these ‘criteria’ are all after-the-fact attempts at explaining something that can’t be explained otherwise, at least not unless you are willing to admit that the first Christians devoted themselves to the teachings of the apostles which were preserved in the ‘tradition’ – and reliance on this ‘tradition’ broke the stalemate of “the doctrine I read in the book of Romans appears to conflict with the doctrine I read in the book of James, so one of these books has got to go!” The Christian church didn’t solve this conundrum using ‘criteria’. Relying on the deposit of faith, they realized that both Romans and James agreed with the doctrine of the apostles, that is, with the tradition handed down from the apostles to the leadership of the church, and therefore both could be recognized as Holy Scripture.

Some popular authors go so far as to claim that Augustine used the criterion “of extreme and wonderful sufferings of certain martyrs” to prove that 2 Maccabees was canonical. But Augustine didn’t rely on such ‘criteria’ – as you have noted, Augustine declared that if you wanted to know which books were in the canon, you needed to rely on the judgment of the churches (which was informed by the tradition handed down to them from the apostles!) Lutheran scholar Édouard
Reuss, in his History of the Canon of the Holy Scriptures in the Christian Church, admits:

Whatever merit there may be otherwise in these remarks, they will do good in reminding our Protestant theologians that in any case the collection has been formed in accordance with a principle foreign to our church. That principle is tradition, the succession and authority of the bishops…. Thus, at all periods, under all regimes, for discipline as for dogma, hence also for the canon which is connected with both, tradition ruled the Church, inspired the doctors, opposed the strongest bulwark to heresy; tradition also undertook the task of directing the choice of the holy books. This choice, though its results have not been always and everywhere the same, may have been excellent, at least as good as was possible with the means and material at its disposal; but Protestant theology, which has no desire to elevate tradition, and professes in every other respect to insist on having it first verified, is bound to do the same with regard to the canon of Scripture; it is bound to seek out some other standard than the process which is the very thing to be verified.

“Tradition ruled the church, inspired the doctors, opposed the strongest bulwark to heresy; tradition also undertook the task of directing the choice of the holy books” – not the ‘traditions of men’ but “the tradition which you have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” You have found quotes from the Church Fathers showing that they believed the promise made by the apostle Paul that the Holy Spirit would “guard the good deposit” through the leaders of the church. Irenaeus’ guiding principle from the second century still rings true: “Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important questions among us…. Should we not have recourse to the most ancient churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question?… Would it not be necessary to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the churches?” Rufinus, following this reasoning, insisted that the “divine record” had been “handed down to the churches by the apostles and the deposit of the Holy Spirit.” Origen was sure that the Jewish leadership had no right to determine the canon for Christians – the Christians lacked for nothing that was necessary for their salvation, he wrote, and that included the knowledge of the canon of Scripture! In fact, he insisted that “as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved,
that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition.” Athanasius, too, followed the principle of reliance on the tradition handed down from the apostles: “But beyond these sayings [of the Bible], let us look at the very tradition, teaching and faith of the catholic church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept. Upon this the church is founded, and he who should fall away from it should not be a Christian, and should no longer be so called.” Augustine stated that the bishops of the Christian churches, and most especially the bishops of the churches founded by the apostles, could unite and discern what was God-breathed Scripture, and what wasn’t, based on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the tradition that had been handed down from bishop to bishop to bishop…. And you note that down through the ages following the councils of Hippo and Carthage, council after council ratified the decision of Hippo and Carthage, which is – there are 46 books in the Old Testament.

Since Protestants have rejected that possibility, all of these ‘criteria’ had to be invented to explain something that just can’t be explained otherwise….

For Part 37 please click here


On the third Sunday of Easter

Deo omnis gloria!

The Death of Judas Maccabeus

Here is Part 28 of my series on the canon of Scripture. Part One can be found here. Our Protestant hero has discovered the concept of Holy Tradition in the writings of the early Christians. Believing, as they did, that the Church was the ‘pillar and foundation of the truth,’ those early Christians relied on their leaders to faithfully preserve and hand down the doctrine taught by the apostles. How does this tie into the eventual discernment of the canon of Scripture?

Maybe, just maybe you have finally stumbled upon the key to this whole mystery, the answer to the question of how we can break out of the vicious cycle that plagued Luther as well as so many of the Reformers: “The book of James says ‘by works a man is justified, and not by faith only’ – but this contradicts the doctrine Paul preaches in the book of Romans! Therefore, the book of James contradicts the rest of the Bible and has got to go!” The answer to the dilemma was suggested to you by the first Christians, who devoted themselves to ‘the teaching of the apostles’ – not only, as you might have thought, to the teachings of the apostles written in the pages of the New Testament (which as you note would lead you directly back to the ‘James contradicts Paul – one of them has got to go!’ dilemma) but also to the teachings of the apostles as preserved in the ‘tradition’. The first Christians, you have found, believed that the church was “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:16), and that the doctrine of the apostles must be handed down from bishop to bishop and guarded “with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (2 Tim 1:14). As The Authority of the New Testament Scriptures puts it:

The apostles laid the foundation in their kerygma, witness, and doctrine. They delivered to the church the apostolic tradition, warned against false doctrine, and separated the true from the false. The church received the tradition and the doctrine of the apostles, orally and in written form, and it lived just as well by the one as the other.

This belief that God somehow preserved the teaching of the apostles in oral form down through the ages is entirely new to you. Somehow you had always just assumed that God’s word had to be written down – that was your assurance that it hadn’t been tampered with! After all, writing seems so solid, so reliable, whereas oral transmission of the faith has to pass through the brains and mouths of so many fallible, corruptible individuals….

You remember, though, the objections of many skeptics when it comes to the written Word. “How do you know these documents haven’t been altered? The earliest New Testament manuscripts we have don’t go back to the first century; they are copies of copies of copies – copies which could have been altered from the original! In fact, who says that the originals accurately portrayed the events of the life of Christ? Haven’t the words of Jesus been ’embellished’? You have no proof that Jesus really said “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” other than the insistence of the apostle John – and John wasn’t even there when Jesus supposedly uttered these words! Upon what do you base your belief that the written Word of God has not been altered down through the ages??”

To which you would of course reply that the Holy Spirit has supernaturally guarded the written Word down through the ages to ensure that God’s Truth be preserved. And if you can believe that the written Word, passed down from fallible, corruptible copyist to fallible, corruptible copyist from century to century to century, has been preserved from alteration, why is it such a leap of faith to believe that God the Holy Spirit would have been able to preserve the teachings of the apostles in oral form in the church Jesus established, especially since that is evidently exactly what He did at least up until the time the complete canon of Scripture was discerned? Especially since we know that the apostle Paul promised (in 2 Tim 1:13-14) that He would!

With the supernatural help of the Holy Spirit, this doctrine or ‘tradition’ spoken of in 1 Corinthians 11: 2 and 2 Thessalonians 2:15 could be preserved down through the years and serve as the determining factor when it came time to discern an infallible canon of Scripture. If a book had not been in use in the church down through the ages, or if it had but was not believed to stem from the apostles or their closest companions, it was not ‘apostolic’ and therefore not discerned as part of the written ‘deposit of faith’ (and this could be determined by consulting with the bishops of the various churches). And if a book, no matter how popular it may have been in some quarters, contradicted the ‘doctrine of the apostles,’ that is, the oral ‘deposit of faith,’ then it was not discerned as part of the written ‘deposit of faith’ left to us. So, the solution to the ‘James contradicts Paul/Paul contradicts James’ dilemma was quite straightforward – the church didn’t measure the book of James or any other book solely up against other books of Scripture, but also against the doctrine of the apostles which was handed down both in Scripture and in the oral tradition faithfully preserved by the church! Similarly, no one individual alone could claim to be able to settle the canon issue – the early Christians believed that the truth lay in the unity of the faith taught by the bishops as a group in union with the bishop of Rome.

You page through your reference material to see how that worked out in practice….

You note many references to the fact that individual Church Fathers all had different ideas on which books were Scripture and which weren’t:

Clement of Rome (a first-century bishop) accepted the Epistle of Barnabas as Holy Scripture. He accepted and quotes from the book of Wisdom as well, and he holds “the blessed Judith” up alongside Esther as “women, being strengthened by the grace of God” – in fact he claims that “the Lord delivered Holophernes (the antagonist in the book of Judith) into the hands of a woman (Judith).” You notice that in Irenaeus’ list of the bishops of Rome he mentions “in the third place from the apostles” this bishop Clement – it was Clement who wrote “1 Clement,” an epistle to the still-squabbling church in Corinth that some early Christians considered to be Holy Scripture and a rightful book of the New Testament. You can see why they believed this – Irenaeus says that this Clement “had seen the blessed apostles and conversed with them, and still had their preaching ringing in his ears and their authentic tradition before his eyes.” When considering which books had apostolic authority, some Christians assumed that 1 Clement, most likely written in the last decade of the first century, surely fit that bill, along with the book of Hebrews (author unknown), and perhaps 2 Peter (which you remember Calvin felt was probably written by a disciple of the apostle Peter and therefore had “apostolic authority” and belonged in the Bible.)

Irenaeus of Lyons (a second-century bishop) quoted from or alluded to all the books of our New Testament except Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude, as well as to Baruch, Wisdom, 1 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas, which he considered to be inspired Scripture. He vehemently rejects the ‘Gospel of Truth’ and the ‘Gospel of Judas.’

Clement of Alexandria (2nd to 3rd century) did not accept 2 Timothy or Philemon as Scripture – he did accept the deuterocanonical books as well as many others – 1 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas, among others.

Origen (2nd to 3rd century) accepted the Epistle of Barnabas, but he doubted that the books of James, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John belonged in the Bible.

Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century) rejected the Gospel of Thomas. He also rejected the book of Revelation, while including Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah in his canon of the Old Testament.

Athanasius (3rd to 4th century) accepted all the disputed books of the New Testament, and lumped together the deuterocanonical books, Esther, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache as books “which the Fathers decreed should be read….”

It’s a good thing Irenaeus didn’t insist that any individual could get it right (since you note that the above Fathers all disagreed with one another), nor did Irenaeus claim that the truth would be determined by majority vote. He said that the bishops were the rightful guardians of the truth handed down from the Apostles – one bishop might not be aware that John had written the book of Revelation, but by consulting with the bishop of John’s church in Ephesus he might find that out. Just as Paul wrote in Ephesians, each member of the body needs the other members! Together the leadership of the body of Christ could discern the canon, and the bishop of Rome (the church which Irenaeus considered to be “the greatest and most ancient”) would review and ratify their decision.

So much for the claims of different Reformers that ‘so-and-so’ in the ancient Church accepted or rejected books like 2 Peter or Hebrews – so what? The opinion of one individual Church Father didn’t really count for much (just as the opinion of one Reformer like Martin Luther or John Calvin didn’t really count for much!) How can the opinion of one fallible individual be depended upon when it comes to discerning the canon of Scripture?

That reminds you of the quote from Calvin that you read in the library:

Nothing, therefore, can be more absurd than the fiction, that the power of judging Scripture is in the Church, and that on her nod its certainty depends.

Hmmm…. Well, it depends on how you mean that! Nobody can MAKE an uninspired writing into Holy Scripture, so if Calvin meant that a particular denomination can’t choose certain books and say, “These books are now Holy Scripture, because we say so,” he was right! The canon of Scripture was discerned, meaning that the books written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit were recognized as being Holy Scripture, not made into Holy Scripture when some person or some group said “Presto-chango!”

But, if “the power of judging Scripture” means the power to discern a canon in an authoritative manner, the power to recognize the inspired books and declare beyond the shadow of a doubt that these books are God-given Holy Scripture, and that no other books belong in the canon, then….

Well, somebody HAD BETTER be able to make an authoritative pronouncement! Because otherwise, you’re left with personal opinion, with guesswork and hoping… and doubting! With Irenaeus, and Clement, and Origen, and Cyril, and Athanasius, and Luther, and Karlstadt, and Calvin – each proposing a different canon….

There HAS TO be a way to KNOW we’ve got the right canon! There HAS TO be “certainty”!

Was Calvin wrong? Does this “power of judging Scripture” belong to the Church?

For Part 29, please click here


On the memorial of Bl. Robert Dalby and Bl. John Amias

Deo omnis gloria!


Lord Jesus, give us a pope secundum Cor Tuum, after Your own Heart!

In an effort to distract myself from checking for news of the papal election every 5 minutes – here is Part 27 of my series on the canon of Scripture. Part One can be found here – to make sense of all this, you really need to begin at the beginning. Our Protestant hero has discovered the writings of a second-century bishop named Irenaeus of Lyons, who suggests that consultation with “the most ancient churches” will be an aid in answering questions that are not addressed in Holy Scripture. Might that help with discerning the canon of Scripture?

Irenaeus insists that in order to escape being deceived by the claims of the heretics, Christians needed to listen to the teaching of the churches in union with the teaching of the “greatest and most ancient church known to all,” the church in Rome. You notice especially that Irenaeus is not insisting that any one person can claim to get this right. Irenaeus was himself the bishop of Lyons, France; he is not proclaiming ‘Listen to ME if you want it straight from the horse’s mouth!’ In other words, no one person can be counted on for an answer to a question like ‘what are the contents of the canon?’ The truth lies, Irenaeus stresses, in the unity of the faith taught by the bishops as a group in union with the bishop of Rome. Irenaeus seems supremely unconcerned that the Christians of his time possessed no canon of Scripture. He actually writes:

Let us suppose that the apostles had left us no written records. Would we not have been able to follow the precepts of the tradition that they handed down to those to whom they entrusted the churches? It is this precept of tradition that is followed by many barbarian nations that believe in Christ who know nothing of the use of writing, or ink.

He REALLY has faith in ‘the tradition’! Jesus didn’t leave us a list of inspired Scripture, nor did the apostles. But the first Christians, who so serenely accepted the deuterocanonical books as Holy Scripture, appear to have functioned on the principle that Jesus and the apostles did leave behind ‘the good deposit’ that was, through the work of the Holy Spirit, capable of keeping the church on the right track in the years to come. Apparently, when the first Christians finally decided that it was time to determine which books were Holy Scripture and which weren’t, it was this principle that they relied on – the leadership of the churches would be able to make this determination through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The apostles (to whom Jesus gave the authority to bind and loose) were so successful at passing on this ‘good deposit’ (and OF COURSE they were successful, since the church leaders guarded it with the “help of the Holy Spirit” who cannot fail!) that those church leaders were capable of determining authoritatively what was Holy Scripture and what wasn’t. As Irenaeus wrote:

Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the churches?

“Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important questions among us?” The canon of Scripture would definitely qualify as important! “How should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings?” Well, there is one writing they did not leave us – there is no inspired list of the canon of Scripture. “Should we not have recourse to the most ancient churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question?” “Would it not be necessary to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the churches?”

Is that what happened? Is that how we got our Bible? Did the deposit of faith guide the leadership of the churches? Were the “most ancient churches” consulted in order to “learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question?” Is that how the deuterocanonical books finally, after their initial acceptance by the Christian community, got weeded out?

You write these principles as you understand them on a blank page in your notebook:

No one person is capable of determining single-handedly what is Scripture and what isn’t.

In order to break the vicious cycle of “We get our theology from the inspired books of Holy Scripture – and we know which books are Scripture by testing them against our theology” we need to be 100% sure that we’ve got our theology straight – look what happened to Marcion! And the only way to be 100% sure that we’ve got our theology straight is to make sure that we have devoted ourselves to the teaching of the apostles. The early Christians did this, not by relying on the New Testament (since its contents hadn’t been settled yet – in fact, those contents were part of the very question that needed to be settled!) but rather by clinging to the ‘good deposit’ of apostolic teaching handed down with the help of the Holy Spirit.

The first Christians believed that the rabbinical power to “bind and loose” had been handed over to the Christian church (Matthew 16:19). The leadership of the churches is capable of meeting together and making authoritative decisions – just as Jesus gave his apostles the authority to “bind and loose,” so the leadership, made up of men who were ordained by men who were ordained by men who were ordained by the apostles, can discern through the leading of the Holy Spirit which books are Holy Scripture, and their discernment can be binding because of the authority passed on to them as the ones entrusted with “guarding the good deposit.”

The first Christians did not believe that Christianity was to be based on a written record of the apostles’ teaching or that everything they needed to know had been written down. They believed that the faith which had been “once delivered unto the saints” (or “the faith which was once for all entrusted to the saints” as your NIV puts it) was contained both in Scripture and in the ‘good deposit’ guarded by the church. They apparently took quite literally the words that Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 3:15:

“…. that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”

You check this verse in your NIV, and it comes out substantially the same:

“…the church of the living God, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth.”

The first Christians really believed that the church was the pillar and foundation of truth, just as 1 Timothy 3:15 asserts. That would explain their lack of concern over a settled canon of Scripture…. The church was capable of preserving and passing on the truth….

Well, this at least sounds like a working theory….

For Part 28 please click here


On the memorial of St. Luigi Orione

Deo omnis gloria!