Thursday, September 18, 2014

How Your Online Tone Could Send You to Hell

The before-and-after photos used by Rorate Caeli.
After the Soviet Union had Nikolai Yezhov executed,
his image was carefully purged from official photographs.
A few weeks ago, Msgr. Charles Pope wrote a blog post on his blog (which is on the Archdiocese of Washington's website). It quickly disappeared, leading the traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli to decry “the Catholic Samizdat.” If you don't get the reference, they were comparing the Archdiocese's decisions about what goes on its own blog to totalitarian Soviet censorship. To drive the point home, they ran these before-and-after photos, showing how the Soviet Union removed Nikolai Yezhov from official photos after they executed him. That analogy's not just hyperbolic, it's unhinged.

Using Msgr. Pope as a pawn to slur the bishops is particularly ironic, given Pope's own views on the matter, and his “concerns about disunity in the Church”:
In particular my concerns center around the dismissive attitudes many have developed toward the bishops. While this attitude was once the domain, largely, of dissenters on the theological left, it has now become quite a common attitude among many theological and ecclesial conservatives as well.

I am well aware of the (often legitimate) frustrations by some Catholics that the Bishops, either individually or collectively have not always shepherded in a clearer way; a way that both disciplined dissenters and corrected liturgical abuses and also encouraged those who tried to remain faithful. I get that. These have been difficult decades for the Church and for our culture.

But frustrations should not be permitted to draw us, even subtly, toward a posture that practically speaking severs our union with the bishops. Some of the comments that routinely come in to the blog here are quite shocking in their sweeping dismissal of the bishops, even the Pope. Some of them are so strong that I cannot post them. What makes them particularly shocking is that, these days, most of the comments of this sort come from those who would define themselves as conservative Catholics. That reflects somewhat the readership of this blog (i.e. more conservative), but it is shocking to hear conservative Catholics use the language that I had always associated with dissenters back in the 1970s and 80s.
Msgr. Pope wrote that back in 2012, during Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate. Things have only gotten worse since then. Offhand, I can point to specific instances in which I've read or heard Catholics (and again, apparently orthodox Catholics) refer to the bishops as “useful idiots” of the Obama Administration for their long-standing support of universal health (it's another Stalin reference, but at least the bishops aren't Stalin this time?); derisively refer to Cardinals by first name (e.g., mockingly referring to Cardinal Dolan as “Timmy”); and openly advocate that we just ignore Pope Francis (who gets derisively referred to as “Jorge”).

This problem is particularly acute on the Internet, where people are more prone to being both outraged and rude. The Internet Counter-Magisterium spends an incredible amount of time seeking out things by which to be scandalized and outraged (often, after only hearing one half of the story). But by no means is this just an online problem, nor is it just Traditional Catholics, nor am I myself innocent in this regard.

To put the matter bluntly, Catholics of all stripes have taken to being downright venomous towards the Magisterium when they don't like the bishops' position on an issue, even a prudential one. My concern is that this is becoming the norm: people speak about their spiritual fathers, the successors of the Apostles, like they would speak about politicians with which they disagreed. And while the acidic tone of politics is lamentable, it's many times more lamentable when it's brought into the Church.

Make no mistake: this is a moral issue.

Your opinions about (for example) Cardinal Dolan's participation in the St. Patrick's Day parade, or about what office Cardinal Burke should hold, and the like, make no difference [unless you happen to be Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Burke, or Pope Francis... in which case, welcome to the blog!]. What does matter, and what you'll be accountable for at the Final Judgment, is how you voice those opinions. So let's recall the major moral principles at play here.

I. The Sins of the Tongue

St. James the Just, traditionally believed to be the author
of the Epistle of James
James 3:1-10 has a lot to say about the sins of the tongue:
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness. For we all make many mistakes, and if any one makes no mistakes in what he says he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also. If we put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of GodFrom the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.
So if you go about rudely opining about how the bishops ought to do things, and how the Church ought to be run, you're setting yourself up for harsh judgment for two reasons. First, because you're making yourself out to be some sort of Christian teacher, despite having not been called to such a position by the Church. You're asking to be judged more strictly.

But more importantly, you're unleashing some of that hellfire that James warns against. His analogies are great: the small rudder guides the giant ship, and the small bit in the mouth can be used to guide a huge horse. So the devil can lead us astray by unholy speech, like cursing “men, who are made in the likeness of God.

Jesus Christ has an even more stark warning to us in Matthew 12:36-37, “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” What else is there to say? The way that you talk trash, even if you're just carelessly blowing off steam, could well lead to your eternal damnation. So says the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

II. The Lord's Anointed

Guernico, Saul Attacking David (1646)
Everything in the last point applies generally to how we speak about our neighbors, but this is particularly acute when we're talking about the pope or the bishops. That's because, as Exodus 22:28 says, “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people.

The Old and New Testament are filled with examples illustrating this teaching. We see several in the First Book of Samuel, while King Saul is trying to hunt down and kill David. Without a doubt, David and his men are the ones who are morally in the right. Yet David still orders his men to show restraint, because God anointed Saul as King over the nation of Israel (1 Sam. 9:15-17).

For example, King Saul unwittingly wandered into the cave in which David and his men were hiding, yet David refused to kill him, reasoning: “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to put forth my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam. 24:6). On a separate occasion, when they find Saul sleeping, David forbids his men from killing him in these words: “Do not destroy him; for who can put forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed, and be guiltless?” (1 Sam. 26:9).

In speaking with or about King Saul, David is unceasingly respectful, even as Saul tries to have him killed. The second time around, David goes so far as to chastise Abner, Saul's commander, for failing to protect his king (1 Sam. 26:15-16):
Are you not a man? Who is like you in Israel? Why then have you not kept watch over your lord the king? For one of the people came in to destroy the king your lord. This thing that you have done is not good. As the Lord lives, you deserve to die, because you have not kept watch over your lord, the Lord’s anointed.
Eventually, Saul is wounded in battle against the Philistines, and decides to take his own life (1 Sam. 31:3-4). He falls on his sword, but doesn't die right away, and convinces one of his soldiers to finish the job (2 Sam. 1:9-10). When that soldier recounted this afterwards, David asks, “How is it you were not afraid to put forth your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” and has the man killed (2 Sam. 1:14-16).

Edouard Moyse, The Grand Sanhedrin (1868)
What David is illustrating is the need for respect for the office, even if the man occupying the office isn't living a holy life. It's this principle that makes the Reformation unthinkable, no matter how rotten or wicked some members of the clergy were at the time. And we find this principle in the New Testament as well as the Old. Yesterday, I mentioned Matthew 23:1-3, but it's worth recalling:
Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.
That's respect for the office. And even though Christ, who was above the Pharisees, condemned them as “whitewashed tombs” in Matthew 23:27, we shouldn't forget what happened in Acts 23:1-5,
And Paul, looking intently at the council, said, “Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day.” And the high priest Anani′as commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God shall strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” And Paul said, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”
So Paul, upon learning that the man he insulted was the high priest, takes back his harsh words -- not because they were false, but because he was out of place speaking evil of the high priest in that way. If such a debt of honor is owed to the Jewish high priest, how much more to a Catholic bishop or the Vicar of Christ himself?

Beyond the Old and New Testament, we can find a bottomless well of illustrations of this principle with the Saints. Sometimes, this takes the form of their express teachings: witness, for example, St. Ignatius of Antioch or Pope Clement calling the people to greater respect and obedience of their bishops. But more often, we find this principle illustrated in the Saints' very lives. Consider how Padre Pio was forbidden by the Holy See from publicly saying Mass or hearing confessions when they suspected (wrongly) that he faked his stigmata, or how both St. Joan of Arc and St. Mary MacKillop were invalidly excommunicated by their bishops. Indeed, not infrequently does Our Lord call the Saints to greater holiness by letting them be scourged by their own superiors. Yet how often did these Saints turn to invective, name-calling, and publicly smearing their superiors?

In other words, it's not enough that you're convinced that you're right, and the bishop is wrong. Even if you are right, you don't have permission to treat the bishops disdainfully, and more than your children have the right to treat you disrespectfully anytime you sin or make a mistake.

III. How Should We Respond, Then?

Given everything that I've said above, I should mention what I'm not saying. I'm not suggesting that we're never able to criticize the bishops, or that we have to agree with everything that they say or do. Not so: David treated King Saul with respect, but he didn't turn himself in to be unjustly killed; St. Paul treated the Jewish high priest with respect, but still defended Christianity against him. That's an instructive model for us to follow today. I'd cite as a positive example the recent article by Edward Peters, which manages to decisively answer all of Bishop Tobin's arguments for permitting adulterers to receive Communion, while being unceasingly respectful.

What I'm describing here is a tall order, and it's counter-cultural. We live in a rude age in which people tear each other apart over religious and (especially) political differences. To comment on religious and political affairs in such a culture without sinning is not easy. But what I'm describing is the clear teaching of Scripture and the Church (it may be helpful to recall the Catechism's definitions of rash judgment, detraction, and calumny), and the witness of the lives of the Saints.

After all, whoever said that sanctity was easy? Besides that, we have an alternative. If you hear something troubling, something over which you have no control, pray for those involved. Pray especially for the pope and the bishops, because they will be held to a higher standard than the rest of us (James 3:1; Hebrews 13:17). The vast majority of the time, such heartfelt prayers will accomplish a world of good more than will badmouthing those involved.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Gospel of St. Peter's: Jesus Doesn't Need You.

St. Peter's Square
St. Peter's Basilica is one of the largest, most famous, and most beautiful churches in the world. Rightly has it been called “the greatest of all churches of Christendom.” Although the pope's cathedral is actually St. John Lateran, St. Peter's Basilica is the church typically associated with the papacy.

After all, it's built on the Tomb of St. Peter, the first pope, and the Basilica was something of a symbol of the Reformation. After the original St. Peter's Basilica started to show wear and tear, a larger and more beautiful church was designed. It took over a century to complete (beginning prior to the Reformation, and being completed in 1626), and it was the sale of indulgences to finance the rebuilding of St. Peter's that sparked the Reformation.

So for both better and for worse, St. Peter's came to represent the papacy during the Reformation period. Given this, you might expect it to boast of papal power, with grand declarations of the primacy of St. Peter and his successors. The truth is much more surprising. Just as the Gospel of Matthew couples Christ's establishment of the Church on Peter (Matthew 16:17-19) with a quick reminder of Peter's unworthiness for the task (Mt. 16:21-23), St. Peter's Basilica is filled with reminders of the pope's unworthiness, and our own. Let me give you four examples:

1) The Transfiguration, by Raphael

This is one of the first mosaics that you see when you enter St. Peter's. The top half is clearly the Transfiguration of Jesus, but the bottom half might be confusing at first. Mark 9:2 says that the Transfiguration happened after “Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart.” Given that, what are all of these other people doing there?

The answer is, Raphael is juxtaposing two Biblical scenes, and the second one is surprising: it's the Apostles when they were unable to drive out the demon from a possessed boy (cf. Mark 9:14-29). You can see St. Peter on the left, in blue and yellow, in both scenes. But why does Raphael use this scene? What's being said here? If you look at the composition of the lower scene, you'll see that they're facing the center (and each other), but that the center is empty. Then draw your eyes upwards, and you'll see the glorified Christ directly above the void. He's absent from the bottom scene, because the Apostles are trying to do this themselves. Even though Christ commissioned the Apostles to drive out demons (Matthew 10:8), they're incapable of living out their mission without His constant assistance. 

2) “The Altar of the Lie” by Roncalli

While the Transfiguration is one of the first things that a visitor sees upon entering St. Peter's, that's not necessarily the case for priests. If they're celebrating Mass, chances are, they're entering the Basilica from the sacristy. And what are they greeted with upon entering? The so-called “Altar of the Lie.” It's a side altar with a massive mosaic above it by Roncalli, depicting the death of Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11).

If you don't recall, let me recap: Ananias and his wife Sapphira sell a piece of property, and go to present the proceeds to St. Peter and the Apostles. Secretly (or not so secretly, as we're dealing with God here), they decided to keep some of the money back. They then lie to St. Peter, claiming that this was the full amount. They are both struck dead on the spot, and the last words Ananias hears are St. Peter saying, “you have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:4). Think about what is being said to the priest as he is about to celebrate Mass: you've promised God everything, and are now about to celebrate at His Altar. Don't hold anything back.

3) The Chair of Peter, by Bernini

In the aspe of the Basilica, in the center of the back wall, is one of the most famous parts of St. Peter's: the Cathedra Petri (Chair of Peter) by Bernini. It's built around an actual 9th century papal throne (located inside the bronze throne you see here). The Cathedra, or “Chair,” represented the “seat of power” in antiquity and in Scripture, and it's the root of words like “Cathedral.” Christ speaks of the Pharisees having binding authority (despite their sinfulness) because they taught from “the Chair of Moses” (Matthew 23:2). Because of this, He instructed His followers to “practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Mt. 23:3). That's some pretty loaded imagery, because it acknowledges that someone -- even the pope -- might be totally unworthy to wield the authority God has given them.

Around the Chair of St. Peter, we see four men using ropes to holding up the seat. These are the four of the Doctors of the Church: Saints Ambrose and Augustine from the West, and Saints Athanasius and John Chrysostom from the East. These four men bravely shepherded, defended, taught, and strengthened the Church in difficult periods, as she faced persecution from without and heresy from within. Yet if you look more closely, you'll see that they're not really holding up the Chair of Peter:

The ropes lie slack in their hands. Instead, the Chair is actually being held up by the golden rays emanating from the Holy Spirit. The meaning is clear: in the final analysis, the papacy isn't protected because we have holy popes, or brilliant theologians, or clever apologists, or even great Saints. The papacy is protected because it's upheld by the Holy Spirit, regardless of whether the men sitting in the Chair (or helping to uphold it) are brilliant or stupid, holy or wicked.

4) St. Peter Enthroned

Finally, we come to another of the most famous statues in St. Peter's (and indeed, the world). The statue is St. Peter Enthroned. It's believed to be the work of the 13th century sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio, but some scholars date it back as far as the fifth century.

Whatever the case, it's clearly of St. Peter sitting on a papal cathedra, holding the Keys to the Kingdom in one hand, with the other hand raised in blessing. But there's a weird feature: the arm holding the keys is in a sling. Why? Because the Keys to the Kingdom of God are too much for any man, apart from Divine assistance. St. Peter can't bear the Keys on his own, and the sling represents the way that he is upheld by Someone stronger than himself.


All of this art exists to proclaim the same message: the Church is founded on Peter and the Apostles, defended and strengthened by the Doctors of the Church, and spread throughout the world by each one of us. Yet Christ doesn't need Peter or the Apostles or the Doctors, just as He doesn't need us.

It may not sound like it, but that's Good News. Why? Because none of us are capable, on our own, of fulfilling the good works that God has called us to. We can't make it on our own, and if everything relied upon else, it'd be a disaster. Instead, we need Him. We - priests and laity alike - need to turn over everything to Him, holding nothing back, and entrusting all to the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My Vocation Story (Plus Two More!)

Laurent Okitakatshi, Archbishop Joseph Naumann,
Daniel Koko Oleko, and yours truly.
Several people have asked for my vocation story, but I haven't written much on the subject. So let me share a bit about how I got to be where I am now. This is from a radio show that I did with my bishop, Archbishop Joseph Naumann's, on his radio show, “The Shepherd's Voice,” back in April.

As I mentioned earlier, I had an hour-long interview on Vocation Boom on EWTN. The first part is my vocation story, and the second part is Q&A on vocations-related questions. If that sounds interesting to you (or you just want to hear how weird my voice sounds), check out the audio below:

You can also download it here.

At the time, I was in Kansas City along with two of my friends, Daniel Koko Oleko and Laurent Okitakatshi. Daniel and Laurent are seminarians from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and were in town for Holy Week. Bill Scholl, who helps to put the show together, was more than happy to have all three of us on the show.

So this is really three vocation stories, plus the story of Daniel's conversion to Catholicism, plus (during the first couple minutes), an explanation of Archbishop Naumann's vision for the future of the Church.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Why Are Catholics So "Into" Mary?

Aureliano Milani, Expulsion of Adam and Eve (18th c.)
Today's post is for those Protestants who view the Church's teachings on Mary as unnecessary and odd, rather than evil. There are a lot of you out there, and for good reason.

Let's be honest. If you're not Catholic, or even if you're a Catholic who grew up without much of a focus on Mary, the Catholic devotion to Mary is hard to understand. It seems, if not idolatrous or superstitious, at least ... weird. More specifically, it seems excessively devotional and sentimental, the sort of thing that might work in a culture in which men kiss each other when they meet, but which just doesn't fit in our culture.

But Marian devotion is neither superstition nor mere emotionalism. In fact, Catholics care about Mary so much because Scripture does.

At first, that answer sounds surprising, because Mary doesn't seem to be mentioned that often in Scripture. But that's just on the surface. We need to dive deeper. To see what I mean, let's consider Genesis 3:15. In the midst of cursing the serpent for his role in the Fall, God says:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.
To get what's going on here, let's look at several dimensions of this passage.

1) What's meant by the “Seed” of “the Woman”?

“Seed” is one of the ways that descendants are described in Scripture. But it's measured through the man. In part, that's because ancient cultures tended to have an inaccurate understanding of human sexuality. They understood how agriculture worked: you planted the seeds of a certain plant in soil, and if the soil was fertile, then the offspring of the original plant grew. They assumed human reproduction worked the same way, with the man providing the “seed,” and the woman providing the “soil.” Many of the terms used today (like “fertility”) are holdovers from this view. Hebrew was no exception to this: the same word, zera` meant seed, semen, and descendent, as we see in passages like Genesis 38:8-9.

The point is, we hear continually about “the seed of Abraham” (2 Chronicles 20:7), “the seed of David” (1 Kings 11:39), “the seed of Jacob” (Psalm 22:23), etc., but not the seed of a woman. There are only two exceptions to this in all of Scripture. One of those times is in Genesis 16:10, in which the angel promises Hagar that she'll have many descendants. There, they're referred to as her seed, because it's specifically about her children, not Abraham's children by his wife Sarah.

The only other time is here, in Genesis 3:15. Why?

The answer is clear enough. As the Evangelical pastor John MacArthur explains, “the unique reference in Genesis 3:15 to “her Seed” looks beyond Adam and Eve to Mary and to Christ.

Understood in this way, the passage is quite beautiful: it means that at the very moment of the Fall, God promised that the story wasn't over yet, that Satan wouldn't have the last laugh, and that the Virgin-Born would come and save us from our sins.

This interpretation is also the only one to explain the strange language used. Jesus doesn't have a biological human father, so it would be inaccurate to refer to Him as “the seed of Joseph.” He's the offspring of the Virgin Mary in a way that He's not the offspring of anyone else. Given the Virgin Birth, it becomes clear why God should speak of “her Seed.”

2) What's meant by “the Woman”?

Given the answer to the last question, this one is simple. If Genesis 3:15 is a promise of the Virgin Birth, then the Woman” is the Virgin Mary. You can't have the Virgin Birth without the Virgin.

But this point is an important one for two reasons: first, because it establishes a parallel between Mary and Eve, a parallel that the early Christians grasped. They even share a title, Woman. Remember that, at the time of the Fall, Eve is still called “Woman” (Gen. 2:23), as she doesn't get renamed Eve until Genesis 3:20, a few verses later.

But it's important for a second reason. It means that the Virgin Mary is prophesied from the very first Book of the Bible. God is promising us (and threatening Satan) that a woman will come along who will give birth to a Son who will save us.

And note well: Scripture speaks of “the Woman,” not just “a Woman.” Too often, the Virgin Mary is treated as an unnecessary element (or at best, a replaceable part). But Scripture shows that she was part of God's plan of salvation from the very moment of the Fall. In fact, we can say that God, who “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), chose the Virgin Mary for this role from all eternity. Genesis 3:15 is just the first time He reveals this to us, since it's the first time we need redemption.

3) The Two Teams

Often, when Genesis 3:15 is mentioned, the debate has revolved about the second half of the verse. Since a neuter pronoun is used, the second half of the verse literally translates, “it shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise its heel.” Is this a reference to Jesus? Mary? Christians? The Church? All of the above? This is an interesting debate, but it risks missing the other half of the verse, which is no less shocking.

Recall that God is addressing the serpent, Satan. He says: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.” That is, Our Lord depicts the battle between good and evil as a battle between Mary and Satan. Those are the two sides: you're either with Mary, or you're with the devil. You can be a child of Mary, or you can be a child of the devil. There's no room to be lukewarm (Revelation 3:15-16).

That's what Genesis 3:15 is saying. To be sure, it's saying a lot more than that: for example, about the ultimate triumph of Christ over Satan. But it's hard to get around the fact that the enmity between the serpent and the woman is a foreshadowing of the fight between Satan and Mary, a fight that continues between his offspring and hers until the Last Judgment. Given this, the reasons for the Catholic devotion to Mary should be clear. It's not about excessive emotionalism, but understanding the spiritual battleground.

4) Why Mary's Team?

Domenico Beccafumi, Fall of the Rebel Angels (1530)
Everything up to this point has been, in my view, pretty straightforward exegesis. Even Protestants like MacArthur admit that Genesis 3:15 is about the Virgin Birth, and no Christian can claim ignorance of who that Virgin is. But when we ask why God should description the battle as the serpent against the Woman (instead of the serpent against the Seed of the Woman, as we might expect), we are speculating a bit.

But it's worth asking, because it might sound that Genesis 3:15 is raising Mary to the level of God. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. Scripture continually shows Satan being defeated by created beings. For example, in a passage heavily reminiscent of Genesis 3,  Revelation 12 describes the fall of Satan in this way (Revelation 12:8-9, 13):
Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. [...] And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child.
So once again Scripture speaks of how Satan, the serpent, is at war against the woman [the Mother of Christ, the “one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Rev. 12:5)]. A few verses later, after he fails to corrupt the Mother of Christ, he goes after us (Revelation 12:17): “Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.” In other words, the devil is at war with those of us on Mary's team.

So we see the devil fighting (and losing) first against St. Michael, against the Mother of Christ, and against Christians. But why does Christ choose to defeat Satan by proxy? I suspect it's that God doesn't treat Satan as a worthy adversary, because he's not. It's the heresy of dualism to treat God and Satan as equally-powerful opposing forces. They're not. This is the very heart of the matter. Satan's arrogance is encapsulated in his claim: “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14). But despite his fiercest efforts, Satan will never succeed in making himself like the Most High. God's decision to repeatedly defeat Satan via created beings like the Virgin Mary makes this fact abundantly clear.


Of course, this is in no way an exhaustive examination of the Scriptural references to Mary. But I think it does enough to show why Mary is so central to Catholic spirituality: Scripture presents her as part of the plan of redemption from the very moment that redemption is needed, and depicts the choice between good and evil as a choice to be a child of Mary or a child of the devil. Given this, go be a child of Mary!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Joel Osteen, Judas Iscariot, and the Heretical "Prosperity Gospel"

Lakewood Church
(Joel and Victoria Osteen's megachurch)
The recent controversy over Joel and Victoria Osteen has put these megachurch preachers back in the spotlight. This time, it was because Victoria said:
I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we're not doing it for God—I mean, that's one way to look at it—we're doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we're happy. That's the thing that gives Him the greatest joy. So, I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you're not doing it for God really. You're doing it for yourself, because that's what makes God happy. Amen?
This wasn't spoken by someone on the fringes of Evangelicalism. The Osteens run the largest megachurch in the United States, with over 40,000 weekly members (and millions more tuning in), bringing in an estimated $75,000,000 a year. That's in addition to the tens of millions that Joel has made selling books: his Your Best Life Now sold some seven million copies.

And why are millions of people clamoring to follow the Osteens? Because these two are the most successful peddlers of what's known as the “Prosperity Gospel.” Here's how they describe the “Prosperity Gospel” on their website:
So many people are confused about what the Bible means by prosperity. Prosperity isn’t just about money. It’s about having health and peace in your mind. It’s being able to sleep at night and having good relationships. There are many things that money cannot buy that represent prosperity, but having monetary provision is also a part of prosperity. You’ll never find one place in the Scripture where we are supposed to drag around not having enough, not able to afford what we want, and living off the leftovers of others. No, we were created to be the head and not the tail! Jesus came that we might live an abundant life!
It turns out, when you replace this:

with this:

...people love you for it. The Osteens have gotten rich and successful off of telling people what they want to hear: namely, that God wants them to be rich and successful. And then, they've pointed to all of their extravagant wealth and success as proof of their “Gospel.”

All of this success has come at a price: to achieve it, they have had to pervert and sell out the Gospel. My original idea was to analyze the Prosperity Gospel point-by-point, to show how it puts us, rather than God, at the center of Christianity; how it prostitutes the Gospel in service of Mammon; and how it misrepresents the very Scriptures that it cites as support.

All of this seemed too small, though. If you've ever actually read the Bible, or even if you simply know the basics of the history of the Jews, of Jesus Christ, and of the Christians, then you should be able to see that the Prosperity Gospel is very nearly the antithesis of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. Consider.

I. The Prosperity Gospel v. Israel

Nicholas Poussin, Gideon's Battle Against the Midianites (1626)
God chose Israel precisely because it was so small and weak. The survival of the Jewish people is literally a miracle, given that so much of their history has been spent surrounded by people who wanted to kill them. But the constant temptation for Israel was to rely on their own strength, or on powerful political alliances, rather than trusting in God. In response to this, God would sometimes force Israel to be weak, just so that they could see that it is He, and not they, who are responsible for their survival. My favorite example of this is from Judges 7:2-7, before Gideon leads the Israelites into battle against the Midianite army:
The Lord said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Mid′ianites into their hand, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, ‘My own hand has delivered me.’  Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home.’” And Gideon tested them; twenty-two thousand returned, and ten thousand remained. 
And the Lord said to Gideon, “The people are still too many; take them down to the water and I will test them for you there; and he of whom I say to you, ‘This man shall go with you,’ shall go with you; and any of whom I say to you, ‘This man shall not go with you,’ shall not go.” So he brought the people down to the water; and the Lord said to Gideon, “Every one that laps the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, you shall set by himself; likewise every one that kneels down to drink.” And the number of those that lapped, putting their hands to their mouths, was three hundred men; but all the rest of the people knelt down to drink water. 
And the Lord said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men that lapped I will deliver you, and give the Mid′ianites into your hand; and let all the others go every man to his home.”
So, just to ensure that Israel didn't think that they had won the battle by their own power, God reduces their army from 30,000 troops to 300, and those 300 are, to put it nicely, quirky.

The Jews were not always happy about this arrangement. While moderns have the problem of evil, “why do bad things happen to good people?” the Jewish concern was just the opposite:  “why do good things happen to bad people?” Call it the problem of prosperity. In the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (Jeremiah 12:1).

Jacob Matham, Avarice (1587)
The Psalms in particular are full of the Jews' grappling with this problem of prosperity. For example, in Psalm 73:3-7, Asaph admits:
For I was envious of the arrogant, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pangs; their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as other men are; they are not stricken like other men. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness, their hearts overflow with follies.
In other words, the threefold prosperity that the Osteens describe -- wealth, health, and freedom from trouble -- is a great description of the wicked and arrogant. The Psalmist comes to recognize that all of this prosperity is fleeting and pointless, and that the wicked enjoy it only briefly on their way to destruction (Psalm 73:16-19).

By the light of the Holy Spirit, the Jews came to see that the prosperity that they envied wasn't actually a blessing, but a curse. Even saintly men like Abraham and Lot had to part company, “for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together” (Genesis 13:6). Such prosperity also provokes jealousy and greed, and most disturbingly, causes the greedy to hunger for money and worldly security, rather than hungering after God and eternal salvation.

In this way, the inspired authors show that the poor man who trusts in the Lord is on the road to eternal bliss with Him, while the rich man who trusts in himself (or in his wealth, or his skills, etc.) is poised to accumulate a fortune of no use to him when he dies. “Man cannot abide in his pomp, he is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:12, 20). That's why it's most fitting that Joel Osteen's book is entitled Your Best Life Now, because that's exactly the case for the greedy: they briefly enjoy worldly pleasures, before spending all of eternity in the fires of Hell.

It's for this reason that the prophet Habakkuk prays (Habakkuk 3:7-8),
Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.
In other words, we shouldn't rejoice in God because He's given us nice things or because we think we can get nice things out of Him this way (although, obviously, it's good to thank Him for those things He's given us). We should rejoice in Him because He's God, and because He's extended His hand of salvation, even if we've got absolutely nothing else going for us, and even if God decides to give us nothing but failure and trial.

In a passage that should properly terrify anyone who preaches or believes the Prosperity Gospel, David wishes material prosperity on his enemies (Psalm 17:13-15):
Arise, O Lord! confront them, overthrow them! Deliver my life from the wicked by thy sword, from men by thy hand, O Lord, from men whose portion in life is of the world. May their belly be filled with what thou hast stored up for them; may their children have more than enough; may they leave something over to their babes. As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with beholding thy form.
So that's the Old Testament, in a nutshell: a long history of God's chosen people being kicked around by the prosperous and powerful, while the Israelites' very lack of prosperity leads them into greater faith and to salvation.

II. The Prosperity Gospel v. Jesus Christ

Michael Rieser, The Night Before the Birth of Christ (1869)
Jesus is born to a working-class couple. His first crib is a food trough used by animals, “because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7). His Mother sang of the glory of God (Luke 1:51-52), and how “he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” After spending His infancy as a refugee in Egypt, the Holy Family returns to Israel (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23), to a town sown lowly that one of the Apostles would later ask, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

The teachings of Christ reflect the poverty that He freely chose from all eternity. When John the Baptist sent his followers to see that Jesus was the Christ, He confirmed it for them by showing that “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:5). Part of this Good News is of the blessedness of the poor in spirit, those who have come to rely upon God (Matthew 5:3).

Meanwhile, He warns the rich: “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:23-24). He calls them, like all of us, to love God and hate wealth. “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13).

Christ praises a tax collector named Zacchaeus for giving away half of his possessions, and repaying fourfold all of the money he earned fraudulently (Luke 19:1-10). And when a pious young rich man asks Jesus how to be saved, He says (Matthew 19:21), “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.

Nor was it just what He said. Just as the Osteens practice what they preach, so too does Christ. The Osteens preach that we are to be wealthy here below, so they live in a mansion worth over $10 million, while keeping another $3 million mansion just to show what they think of Luke 3:11. Christ preaches the opposite, so He could boast of no such mansions: “foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Instead, His mansions, and the ones prepared for His followers, are in Heaven (John 14:2).

Of course, Christ warns us not to follow the Osteens short-term investment strategy (Matthew 6:19-21):
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
And again, in Luke 12:33: “Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.” Does any of this sound like the God that Osteen believes in, who wants you to get rich, and to enjoy your mansions and the good life now, and here below?

III. The Prosperity Gospel v. The Church

Carlo Crivelli, Saint Sebastian (1491)
All of this is not to say Christ was never extravagant. He was, in suffering. Despite being sinless, He suffers numerous untold indignities: being spat upon, beaten, tortured, and eventually executed on the Cross. This was the Chalice of His Passion (Matthew 26:39), and it's this Chalice from which He offers us a drink (Matthew 20:23), and it's this Cross that He invites us to pick up and carry as part of our life of self-denial (Matthew 16:24).

Christ sends the Twelve with these instructions (Matthew 10:8-10):
Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without pay, give without pay. Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food.
The Apostles take these words to heart, not holding on to any material possession that might obstruct them from a full devotion to the Gospel (Acts 2:45). So radical was their devotion to Apostolic poverty that when a crippled man begs at the feet of Peter, the Apostle can respond honestly, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:6).

Nor was it simply poverty that the Apostles eagerly embraced: they also embraced persecution, just as their Master had promised at the Last Supper (John 15:18-20):
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.
Therefore, the earliest Christians “rejoice in our sufferings,” (Romans 5:3; Colossians 1:24; 1 Peter 4:13). Rather than calling him to enjoy the good life, St. Paul calls Timothy to “Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3), a message less likely to get on the New York Times bestseller list.

When St. Paul's Apostolic authority is challenged, the credentials he cites to show his authenticity is that he has eschewed prosperity for the sake of suffering (2 Corinthians 11:24-30):
Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.
By boasting in his weakness, Paul was both showing a deep understanding of the Old Testament message, as well as the New. Such a teaching can be neatly summarized in Our Lord's words to St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Such a witness is proclaimed in the lives of the martyrs, from St. Stephen (Acts 7:54-60) down to the present day. Christians happily give up everything and are poured out like libations (Philippians 2:17) out of love of the Gospel.

Such a paradox has long baffled the enemies of Christianity: if Christianity is true, why aren't the Christians all healthy, rich, and powerful? When the Mongolian leader Kuyuk (or Güyük) Khan was continuing his grandfather Genghis' domination of Christian lands, Pope Innocent IV wrote to him calling for peace and trying to convert him to Christianity. Kuyuk wrote back:
Furthermore, you have said it would be well for us to become Christians. You write to me in person about this matter, and have addressed to me a request. This, your request, we cannot understand. [...] how do you know who is pleasing to God and to whom He allots His grace? How can you know it, that you speak such words? Thanks to the power of the Eternal Heaven, all lands have been given to us from sunrise to sunset. How could anyone act other than in accordance with the commands of Heaven?
In other words, Kuyuk assumed that since he was prosperous, he must enjoy the blessings of Heaven, and therefore, his religion must be the true one. Needless to say, his Prosperity Gospel was a false one, and the Mongolians were eventually crushed (though not before several prominent Mongol leaders converted to Christianity).


Hopefully, this suffices to show that the Gospel preached by the Osteens is a false and horrible bastardization of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is almost the perfect negative of the Gospel message. The Osteens, and those who preach and teach similar false Gospels, have pimped out the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a way to gain worldly wealth, rather than recognizing it for what it is: the self-revelation of Almighty God, and a sure path to eternal salvation. The French writer Léon Bloy described such rotten shepherds as worse than Judas, who at least returned the money:
The sum total of fifty worldly priests would not even amount to as much as one Judas, a Judas who returns the money and hangs himself from despair. Frankly, such priests are appalling. Through them it is that the rich are confirmed in their wealth, as ice is solidified by sulphuric acid.
Of course, I can't say with any certainty that the Osteens are worse than Judas Iscariot, or even that he and his followers will surely rot in Hell. Only God can know that for sure.

What I can say with certainty, though, is that trading the Pearl of Great Price for a few tens of millions of dollars is a terrible rip-off. The Prosperity Gospel is no path for your best life, either for now or (most surely) for eternity.

Monday, September 1, 2014

6 Biblical Reasons to Pray to Angels

Should you pray to angels? Does the Bible have anything to say about this practice? And if so, does it permit it or condemn it?

I should clarify at the outset that by “praying,” I don't mean “worshiping” them. All Christians are in agreement that worshiping angels is contrary to Scripture, and Revelation 19:9-10 and 22:8-9 are particularly clear that we are not to do so. That question is easy. Instead, I mean speaking to angels, asking them to pray for us, asking them to protect us, thanking them for their protection and prayers, and the like.

With that in mind, consider these six Biblical reasons to pray to angels. I'm going to present each point with minimal commentary, summarizing the resulting picture at the end:

(1) Your Guardian Angel is Praying For You.

Pietro Perugino, God the Father and Angels, Sistine Chapel (16th c.)
In Matthew 18:10, Jesus says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.” It's easy to overlook the importance of that line for this question, but Christ is confirming that we each have guardian angels interceding for us before the Heavenly Throne. That's why He refers to these as “their angels.”

Nor is it just individuals who have guardian angels. Revelation 1:20 tells us that each church also has its own angel. And God uses these angels as intermediaries between God and man: He sends an angel to speak to John and inspire him to write Revelation (Rev. 1:1), and then has this angel transmit a message to John to proclaim to the angels of each of the churches (Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). Nations are also entrusted to particular guardian angels, as was done with the nation of Israel (Daniel 10:21; 12:1).

So there are angels who have a direct responsibility for us, and who are involved in our lives, praying for us.

(2) Angels Bring the Prayers of the Saints to God.

Not only are angels praying for us, they're also bringing our prayers to God. In Tobit 12:15, the Archangel Raphael says, “I am Raph′ael, one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One.” Now, Protestants might be hesitant to accept that testimony: after all, it's from the Book of Tobit, which they believe is non-inspired. But it turns out, the Book of Revelation confirms what Raphael said. Revelation 8:2-4 says:
Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.  And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.
Now, Revelation doesn't specify whether these are the prayers of the Saints in heaven, on earth, or both. But it's clear that these seven angels (along with an eighth, who serves as a heavenly thurifer) are offering the prayers of the Saints.

So angels aren't just involved in praying for us, but are intimately involved in our prayers to God. This turns out to be an important point for Protestants, who fear that intercession somehow gets in the way of their ability to pray directly to God. Their prayers directly to God are already going through angelic mediation!

(3) Angels Protect Us in Other Ways, Too.

Pietro Perugino, Annunciation, Santa Maria Nuova, Fano (1490)
Angels help us in countless other ways, as well. Hebrews 1:14 says of angels: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?” This ministry takes different forms, as they provide for our physical and spiritual needs on the road to salvation.

For example, Psalm 34:7 says that, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.” Sometimes this takes the form of physical protection: for example, in battle (2 Chronicles 32:21). Additionally, it was an angel who gave Elijah food and drink to strengthen him when he had given up on living (1 Kings 19:5-8). But beyond physical protection, angels help us spiritually. When Balaam went to curse Israel, it was an angel who stopped him - invisibly at first, and visibly only thereafter (Numbers 22:32-33). 

Other times, this angelic ministry takes the form of telling us what to do. An angel instructed the Apostle Philip to “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” (Acts 8:26) so that Philip would encounter the Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah, and lead him to salvation (Acts 8:27-39).

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, they announce the will of God to us. Several times throughout Scripture, angels answer our prayers on God's behalf, or are His instrument for announcing His will or His plans. For example, the prayers of Hagar and Ishmael are answered by an angel (Genesis 16:1-10; 21:17), an angel who calls Gideon the judge (Judges 6:11-21), and so on. It was the Archangel Gabriel who told Zechariah that his wife would bear John the Baptist (Luke 1:11-13). Or, to take the most angelic appearance in history, it was Gabriel who announced to the Virgin Mary that she would bear Jesus Christ (Luke 1:26-38).

So angels play a huge, unseen role in our daily lives, aiding us on the way to salvation. While this includes prayer, we now see that it includes countless other ministrations, as well.

(4) It's Okay to Speak to Angels.

As we've just seen, Scripture presents several times in which angels speak to men and women. And you know what? The people that they're talking to often respond. For example, when Gabriel announces the Incarnation to Mary, she asks him how it could happen, given her Virginity (Luke 1:34). Both Abraham and Jacob are depicted as speaking with angels (Genesis 22:11; 31:11), as did Balaam (Numbers 22:34), Samson's father (Judges 13), and many others. Both the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 1) and the Apostle John (the Book of Revelation) are presented as having extended conversations with angels.

In a few of these examples, it's unclear if the “angel” is actually Christ, but there's no question that Scripture presents men speaking with angels, and presents it in a positive manner (unless, like the high priest Zechariah, they're disrespectful: cf Luke 1:18-20). 

Typically, these people speak to angels after the angels begin the conversations. But Scripture doesn't require this, and King David freely calls upon the angels, along with the rest of Creation, to praise God: “Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his host!” (Psalm 148:2) and “Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word!” (Psalm 103:20).

(5) The Disciples Even Speak to Demons.

One point that's often overlooked is that the Disciples are sent out to exorcise demons (Luke 9:1), and this mission entails speaking to them at times. After all, they are driving out demons in the name of Jesus (Luke 10:17). And when non-Disciples start imitating this, driving out demons in the name of Jesus, He doesn't discourage them (Mark 9:38). For that matter, Christ Himself spoke with demons (Matthew 8:28-32; Luke 8:30).

Obviously, it's not as if Jesus and His followers were making small talk with demons. Rather, they were speaking to them in the course of casting them out. But nevertheless, this point is significant, because it would bizarre to say that it's okay to speak to demons, fallen angels, in order to cast them out, but not okay to speak to holy angels.

(6) This Doesn't Violate Scripture's Prohibition Against Consulting the Dead.

Finally, let's go ahead and anticipate a common Protestant objection:
Praying to the dead is strictly forbidden in the Bible. Deuteronomy 18:11 tells us that anyone who “consults with the dead” is “detestable to the Lord.” The story of Saul consulting a medium to bring up the spirit of the dead Samuel resulted in his death “because he was unfaithful to the LORD; he did not keep the word of the LORD and even consulted a medium for guidance” (1 Samuel 28:1-25; 1 Chronicles 10:13-14). 
And that's all true: Scripture does condemn consulting the dead. Isaiah 8:19 says, “And when they say to you, “Consult the mediums and the wizards who chirp and mutter,” should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?

The Scriptural condemnation of consulting the dead is closely tied to the idea of trying to go around God. Both 1 Chronicles 10:13 and Isaiah 8:19 point this out clearly. But in the case of praying to the angels or the Saints in heaven, you're not trying to go around God. You're trying to go to those close to Him: those who are praying for you, offering up your prayers, and looking out for you in innumerable ways.

More importantly, praying to angels isn't consulting the dead. After all, angels aren't dead. After all, these are the angels that didn't fall, the angels who stand in the presence of the Living God at all times (Matthew 18:10; Luke 1:19; Tobit 12:15; Revelation 8:2). They're alive in a way that we're not, alive in a way that we still strive to be. 

To act as if angels are dead just because they're immaterial, spiritual beings is an incredibly anti-Christian attitude. After all, “God is Spirit” (John 4:24), yet we don't declare “the living God” dead (cf. Hebrews 3:12). This idea that those without bodies are “dead” might make sense for an atheist materialist, but not for a Christian.

While we're on the subject, this is why the prohibition against consulting the dead doesn't prohibit praying to the Saints. The Sadducees made the same mistake that these Protestant objectors made, and Christ corrected them for it (Mark 12:26-27):
And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”
To say that we can't pray to the Saints because they're dead is to say that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God of the dead. If you believe that, you are quite wrong.


To summarize the case for praying to angels, Scripture has revealed to us that there are spiritual beings who are standing in the presence of God, and who are both offering up our prayers to God, and their own prayers for us. More than this, they are tasked with ministering to us to lead us to salvation. Of course we should talk to them: requesting that they pray for specific things, entreat them to protect us in areas in which we realize that we are weak, and the like. In doing this, we are helping them to do what God has tasked them to do.

And so it's the most natural thing in the world that Scripture presents holy men and women speaking with angels. How could they not? Consider Genesis 22:11,
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.”
Imagine the absurdity of a Protestant Abraham, afraid to speak to the angel for fear that this might somehow be “worship.” Or a Protestant Mary, too “pious” to ask Gabriel about the Virgin Birth. 

Of course, I don't say these things to be rude to Protestants, who act out of a well-meaning piety in avoiding acknowledging or thanking the angels who assist them daily. But I do mean to show that this aversion to praying to angels is unbiblical, and born out of a terribly flawed and anti-Christian notion that the immaterial angels and disembodied Saints in glory are “dead,” when they are in fact in the presence of the living God.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Can All Christians Agree to a "Mere Christianity"?

Martin Luther, illustration from Die Gartenlaube (1883)
Martin Luther and many of the original Protestant Reformers believed thatthe all-clear Scriptures of God” were so clear that “if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from their own blindness or want of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of the truth.” In other words, if there is any doctrine that any two Christians disagree on, it's because at least one of them is evil or uneducated.

In Luther's formulation, this really meant everything: “nothing whatever is left obscure or ambiguous; but all things that are in the Scriptures, are by the Word brought forth into the clearest light, and proclaimed to the whole world.” I suspect that few Protestants today would go this far, and for good reason. If you're a Lutheran who took Luther's view, it would mean writing off all non-Lutherans as foolish or blinded by their wickedness. And since modern Lutheranism consists of multiple denominations disagreeing with one another, you'd have to reject even most other Lutherans in this way. But even this wouldn't be enough: you would literally have to say that anyone who disagrees with you about anything about the Bible is ignorant or evil. Because according to Luther, if you're a Christian, 100% of doctrines are crystal clear to you. If your neighbor disagrees, the doctrines must not be crystal clear to him, so one of you is suspect.

To totally reject the Reformers' belief in the clarity of Scripture would require an interpretative aid, like the Church or Sacred Tradition. Many Protestants are unwilling to accept such a conclusion, so we've instead seen a shift to a modified position, that we might call “mere Christianity.”

I. The Case for Mere Christianity

The modern Protestant claim is usually more cautious than what Luther presented. Nowadays, you're likely to hear that by reading Scripture, all Christians will come to at least a sure knowledge of all “essential” doctrines. Left to our own devices (or submitting ourselves to the teaching authority of our own choosing), we may not get the finer details right. Even Luther admitted this, sort of:
The Scripture simply confesses the Trinity of God, the humanity of Christ, and the unpardonable sin. There is nothing here of obscurity or ambiguity. But how these things are the Scripture does not say, nor is it necessary to be known.
So there are things we don't know, and presumably, things that we're wrong about. But they're unimportant. They're not part of the “heart” of Christianity, and nobody's soul is in jeopardy by getting doctrines of this sort right. On such matters, Christianity is best when Christians exercise a healthy sense of Christian liberty on the matters. As the famous axiom says, “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Such a view gets rid of the need for the papacy or any sort of authoritative teaching authority in the Church. Indeed, that appears to have been part of its original appeal. While the “in essentials, unity” axiom is credited to all sorts of famous personages (St. Augustine and John Wesley, for example), apparently, the first known appearance of the phrase actually comes from Marco Antonio de Dominis. He was the ex-Archbishop of Spilatro, who left the Church after running afoul of the Inquisition to become the Anglican dean of Windsor. In 1617, whilst denouncing Catholicism, de Dominis declared:
Now if this plague of an abomination [were to] be cleared away at the root—i.e. see or rather throne of the Roman pontiff—itself, [...] we would all embrace a mutual unity in things necessary; in things non necessary liberty; in all things charity.
So from the start, the axiom pursues the same goal pursued both by Luther and by modern “Mere Christianity” proponents: the creation of a unified Christianity built upon everyone agreeing about the Scriptures rather than everyone submitting to the Church. 

II. The Problems With “Mere Christianity”

How well does the claim that all Christians agree about essential doctrines hold up? Not particularly well. It turns out there are two major problems: (1) who counts as a Christians? and (2) what counts as essential? Let's consider each problem in turn:

Problem # 1: What do we mean by Christians?

Let's take “Christians” in its broadest sense first, to mean “anyone who calls themselves Christian.” Obviously, we will find no doctrinal unity on the “essentials,” or indeed, ANY major doctrine with so many competing creeds and beliefs.

Think about it: within that group, you've got everyone from Mormons who claim that God the Father is a human being who physically impregnated the Virgin Mary to Episcopalians who deny the physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ to Pentecostals who reject the Trinity. All of these are people who consider themselves Christians, and who want to be considered Christians, but who most other Christians don't want considered Christians. And each of them denies something central to orthodox Christianity.

So if you take a broad “whoever calls himself a Christian is a Christian” view, there's no hope of finding even basic agreement on any of what might termed the essentials, or much of anything else. And if you have some sort of standard of what defines a Christian, what is it, and who gets to decide?

Problem #2: What do we mean by Essential?

C.S. Lewis
The first problem is bad, but the second problem is worse. If you say that all Christians agree on essential doctrines, which doctrines fall into that category? It turns out, there's virtually no agreement. Doug Beaumont, prior to his conversion to Catholicism, produced a list of 75 significant areas of debate within Protestantism. Debates rage between Protestants over Creation and evolution, contraception and abortion, Saturday or Sunday worship, women's ordination, Eucharistic theology, justification, pacifism, dispensationalism, the role of the Old Testament in Christianity, and numerous other topics.

It's not just that Protestants are disagreeing with one another in a way that disproves Luther's claims about Biblical clarity. It's that you don't even find these Protestants agreeing with one another about whether or not the topic is essential.

Take justification by faith alone. For Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other Reformers, justification was by faith alone (sola fide), and this was the most essential doctrine in all of Christianity:
The classical Reformed and Lutheran traditions have maintained that the doctrine of justification is the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, the article upon which the Church stands and falls. What we're really saying is that the gospel, that is the good news that God justifies sinners by grace, through faith on account of Christ, is the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. So, in the minds of the reformers, the doctrine of justification is synonymous with the gospel. 
Contrast that with C.S. Lewis' view (presented in his wonderful book Mere Christianity, ironically), that Christians need faith and works, and that the debate over justification is a waste of time:
“Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or Faith in Christ. I have no right really to speak on such a difficult question, but it does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary. A serious moral effort is the only thing that will bring you to the point where you throw up the sponge. Faith in Christ is the only thing to save you from despair at that point: and out of that Faith in Him good actions must inevitably come.” 
So there are really two disputes. Not only do Luther and Lewis disagree about justification, but they also disagree about whether justification is an essential doctrine or not. For Luther, it's the Gospel. For Lewis, it's a trivial dispute, like asking which blade of the scissors does the cutting.

There are really two problems here. First of all, who gets to decide which doctrines are essential? And second, isn't the question of which doctrines are essential itself an essential part of Christianity? If we can't even agree which doctrines are essential, how can we possibly claim to agree on all essential doctrines?

So how can these two problems be resolved?

III. The Unworkable Solution: The No True Scotsman Fallacy

If you're not familiar, the No True Scotsman fallacy works like this:
Person A: "No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge." 
Person B: "I am Scottish, and I put sugar on my porridge." 
Person A: "Well, no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."
That, more or less, is the response of many “Mere Christianity” Protestants to the problems I've outlined. Mormons, Oneness Pentecostals, and liberal Episcopalians disagree with you on doctrines that you consider “essential”? Well, then, they're not Christian. Once you declare that anyone who disagrees with you on essential doctrines is no longer a Christian, then you can quickly conclude that all Christians agree with you on essential doctrines.

But that's nothing more than a tautology. All that proves is that everyone who agrees with you agrees with you. That doesn't get us to Mere Christianity. It gets us to merely you.

Worse, your opponent might do the same thing, declaring that everyone who disagrees with him isn't a Christians. So why should we believe you (who he says isn't a Christian) instead of him (who you say isn't a Christian)? After all, neither of you have any authority to excommunicate the other one. Your usurped authority is based simply on the idea that you're each really sure of your own correctness.

IV. The True Solution: The Magisterium

Pope John XXIII, 1959
As should be plainly clear, to be able to “embrace a mutual unity in things necessary; in things non necessary liberty; in all things charity,” you need an authority capable of determining which doctrines one must hold to in order to be Christian, and which areas permit if varying viewpoints between Christians.

This authority can't be the Bible itself, for two reasons. First, most of the time, the Bible is the exact area of dispute. This would be akin to saying that we should do away with the Supreme Court, and settle all questions of Constitutional interpretation by all reading the Constitution until we agree. Should we take your interpretation, or your opponent's? Without an authority capable of determining which of you is right in your interpretation of the Bible, you can't solve that dispute (and on this point, 500 years of Protestantism prove me correct).

Second, we need a living authority capable of settling disputes when they arise. Several of the heresies of today simply weren't around in the first century, and there's an ongoing task of determining how the Scriptural teachings apply to modern settings. For example, there are a whole slew of moral problems arising in the realm of bioethics that didn't even exist when most people reading this were born.

So we need an authority capable of telling us which Christian doctrines are essential ones on which we must all agree, and which are perhaps unsettled areas, in which Christians may legitimately hold differing views. To what I imagine would have been de Dominis' displeasure, this clearly requires a living Magisterium, a Church teaching authority. So it is a Divine irony that what had begun as an anti-papal axiom ends up not only showing the need for the papacy, but actually being used by a pope. Pope St. John XXIII, in Ad Petri Cathedram, remarked:
71. The Catholic Church, of course, leaves many questions open to the discussion of theologians. She does this to the extent that matters are not absolutely certain. Far from jeopardizing the Church's unity, controversies, as a noted English author, John Henry Cardinal Newman, has remarked, can actually pave the way for its attainment. For discussion can lead to fuller and deeper understanding of religious truths; when one idea strikes against another, there may be a spark.(25)

72. But the common saying, expressed in various ways and attributed to various authors, must be recalled with approval: in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.
Here, we see the only way “Mere Christianity” can work: with the Magisterium of the Church there to guide it, to determine which things are necessary parts of that “Mere Christianity” and which are superfluous.

To at least some Protestant readers, I imagine that conclusion seems ridiculous, so let me close on a challenge to you: if St. John XXIII's approach isn't the way to save “Mere Christianity,” what is? How else can we (a) know which doctrines are essential to Christianity and (b) unanimously come to complete agreement on these doctrines?