Calvin on the "Marks of the Church"

For the second Protestant Confession to examine, it seems sensible to go for the who's who and what's what of Reformed Christianity, Mr. John Calvin himself. He wrote the 1559 French Confession of Faith [.DOC], and there's much in it to admire. To wit:

XXV. Now as we enjoy Christ only through the gospel, we believe that the order of the Church, established by his authority, ought to be sacred and inviolable, and that, therefore, the Church can not exist without pastors for instruction, whom we should respect and reverently listen to, when they are properly called and exercise their office faithfully. Not that God is bound to such aid and subordinate means, but because it pleases him to govern us by such restraints. In this we detest all visionaries who would like, so far as lies in their power, to destroy the ministry and preaching of the Word and sacraments.
While Catholics dispute that Christ is enjoyed only through the (written) Gospel [we would acknowledge Sacred Tradition, and at least hints of Himself are enjoyed in other ways, like the natural law and Creation], and understand "sacraments" to include more than Calvin himself does, the rest of this article is music to our ears. The sentence I've underlined is particularly important, because much of the monergist-synergist debate comes down to monergists saying God doesn't need us, and synergists saying, "but He uses us anyways!"

XXVI. We believe that no one ought to seclude himself and be contented to be alone; but that all jointly should keep and maintain the union of the Church, and submit to the public teaching, and to the yoke of Jesus Christ, wherever God shall have established a true order of the Church, even if the magistrates and their edicts are contrary to it. For if they do not take part in it, or if they separate themselves from it, they do contrary to the Word of God.
Catholics absolutely believe all of this. But Calvin's presented himself with a problem: he's just forbidden splitting from the Church! But of course, he has a solution: "the Church" just means whatever John Calvin thinks it should mean.

XXVII. Nevertheless we believe that it is important to discern with care and prudence which is the true Church, for this title has been much abused. We say, then, according to the Word of God, that it is the company of the faithful who agree to follow his Word, and the pure religion which it teaches; who advance in it all their lives, growing and becoming more confirmed in the fear of God according as they feel the want of growing and pressing onward. Even although they strive continually, they can have no hope save in the remission of their sins. Nevertheless we do not deny that among the faithful there may be hypocrites and reprobates, but their wickedness can not destroy the title of the Church.
The only redeeming feature of this article is that he at least acknowledges that some weeds will be mixed in with the wheat, although he's plenty vague on the point. (Indeed, it sounds very much like there has to be a majority-wheat for it to be the "true" Church, so be careful who you baptize, I guess!). I'm assuming here that he means only the ultimately-damned, but I'm not positive on that. He's not really clear on at what point (or how) their wickedness "destroy[s] the title of the Church."

The critical problem is that this centered upon the results. A church can go from being an authentic part of the Church to an inauthentic one (and back) based upon spiritual dry spells amongst the congregation... even if the message preached is the exact same. That's the problem with the vague requirement that the real Church's members "advance in [the word of God] all their lives." It's terribly subjective.

Mostly, he just defined what a Christian is, roughly. This whole article seems to say, "the Church is a group of Christians," which isn't even his own belief (see Article XXVI).

XXVIII. In this belief we declare that, properly speaking, there can be no Church where the Word of God is not received, nor profession made of subjection to it, nor use of the sacraments. Therefore we condemn the papal assemblies, as the pure Word of God is banished from them, their sacraments are corrupted, or falsified, or destroyed, and all superstitions and idolatries are in them. We hold, then, that all who take part in those acts, and commune in that Church, separate and cut themselves off from the body of Christ. Nevertheless, as some trace of the Church is left in the papacy, and the virtue and substance of baptism remain, and as the efficacy of baptism does not depend upon the person who administers it, we confess that those baptized in it do not need a second baptism. But, on account of its corruptions, we can not present children to be baptized in it without incurring pollution.
This one's the kicker. When he said previously said (in Article XXVII), "according to the Word of God, that [the Church] is the company of the faithful who agree to follow his Word," he really meant, "the faithful who agree to follow his Word as understood by John Calvin." Because it just isn't honest to say that "the pure Word of God is banished from" the Catholic Church.

If, however, he means that holding anything besides what is in written Scripture defies the purity of the pure word of God, he's got some explaining to do, since later in the same article, he defends the notion that the sacraments are efficacious ex opere operato (when he says that "the efficacy of baptism does not depend upon the person who administers it"). Where does he get that from Scripture? He doesn't - Scripture isn't clear on this point. He gets it from the Catholic Church, which has continually held this as a tradition, most clearly against the Donatists. And by this point, there is no serious question that the only Christians we have record of believe in the very sacraments Calvin decries as idolatry and not true sacraments. Strangely, Calvin takes the concept ex opere operato, while condemning the very sacraments it was intended to describe.

It is also incomprehensible to me to argue that the Catholic Church validly baptises people into a Church cut off from the Body of Christ, but which still has "some trace of the Church" in it. It's more unclear how a sacrament performed ex opere operatis, where the disposition of the minister is irrelevant, can confer "pollution" upon the recipient.


It should be clear that Calvin's understanding of the Church, particularly as expressed in Article XXVIII, would exclude the entire early Church -- namely, because they, like the modern Church, acknowledged authentic Apostolic tradition in addition to Scripture, and worshipped the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If the claims "the pure Word of God is banished from them, their sacraments are corrupted, or falsified, or destroyed, and all superstitions and idolatries are in them" is accurate of one, it's accurate of the other. Let me prove this briefly, and with just a few examples:

(1) The Didache, probably the oldest Christian document outside of the New Testament itself, is called The Teaching of the Twelve Disciples, and yet contains information in addition to Scripture. This book was held as valid (and often, even, as inspired) by the early Church. If anything plus Scripture means "the pure Word of God is banished from them," there's no Church until Calvin. Mind you, these aren't even post-Apostolic Christians: much of the Didache was probably written while the Apostles were still living.

(2) Like I said earlier, Ignatius of Antioch used the Real Presence of the Eucharist as a litmus test in 107-110 A.D. to determine if someone was validly an orthodox Christian. Significantly, Calvin rejected Ignatius of Antioch's letters as being authentic. Specifically, in his Institutes, Book I, Chapter 13, Section 29, available here, he argues:

With regard to what they pretend as to Ignatius, if they would have it to be of the least importance, let them prove that the apostles enacted laws concerning Lent, and other corruptions. Nothing can be more nauseating, than the absurdities which have been published under the name of Ignatius; and therefore, the conduct of those who provide themselves with such masks for deception is the less entitled to toleration.

So Calvin considered it impossible that Ignatius wrote his own work; and went so far as to claim that his work was fabricated to deceptively promote the Catholic Faith (in fact, he even accuses of those Catholics who appealed to Ignatius as appealing in bad faith in that last sentence). Now that we know that Ignatius did write his own work, shouldn't that change the game somewhat? Doesn't that prove Calvin wrong on a really significant point? Namely: what the Church looked like in 110 A.D.? (For more on this, I'd suggest Dave Armstrong's post). While this perhaps exonerates Calvin in a way -- it seems he made an honest mistake -- it also should suggest that perhaps, since his premises were wrong, his conclusions might be as well?

(3) Finally, on the point of what Calvin calls "superstitions and idolatries," I'm assuming he actually means things like prayers to the saints (which he knew well aren't actually idolatry, since we don't worship them).

Philip Francis Esler, in his book New Testament Theology: Communion and Community, writes this (here, pg. 209) of the pre-Nicene Church:
"Christian devotion to the apostles and martyrs, most notable Peter and Paul, exists from an early date in Rome. There is archaeological and literary evidence for a monument to Peter on the Vatican Hill from as early as the mid-second-century CE. [...] About a century later, we find a well-developed devotion to Peter and Paul at the catacomb near the Via Appia that was believed to contain their remains, now located under the church of San Sebastiano. These date from about 260 CE to the time of Constantine. [...] Excavations carried out in 1915 revealed a large number of graffiti containing requests directly to the two saints jointly."
Even prior to 1915, we find Henry Donald Maurice Spence-Jones, an Anglican (if you couldn't tell from that name -- he was the Anglican Vicar and Rural Dean of St. Pancras and the Examining Chaplain to the Lord Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, to be precise) saying the same thing. This is from his 1911 book, The early Christians in Rome, (available here - pg. 309), describing the same period of anti-Christian persecutions:

The first and most prominent feature in the life of the Christians of the first three centuries which the inscriptions of the catacombs make clear to us was their intense conviction of the reality of the future life.

The epitaphs speak of the dead as though they were still living. They talk to the dead. They felt that there was a communion still existing with them—between them and the survivors—a communion carried on under new conditions, and finding its
consolation in incessant mutual prayer.

They were assured that the soul of the departed was united with the saints—that it was with God, and in the enjoyment of peace, happiness, rest; so often the little epitaph breathes a humble and loving prayer that they, the survivors, might soon be admitted to a participation in these blessings.
Sometimes the survivors invoked the help of the prayers of the departed, since they knew that the soul of the departed lived in God and with God ; they thought that the prayers of a soul in the presence of
God would be a help—must be a help— to those whose time of trial was not yet
So if Calvin is right that this is an idolatrous superstition, then it seems that the early Church's countless martyrs died for a sham.

Calvin's marks of the Church are not only excessively vague, but as he seems to construe them (that a "true Church" must not venerate and pray to the saints, worship the Eucharist, or acknowledge any of the word of God beyond Sacred Scripture), they disqualify all of known Christian antiquity prior to the Reformation.

The English Reformed on the "Marks of the Church"

In my post on Wednesday, I identified as "one of the classic Reformed beliefs on the nature of the Church" the idea of a primarily-invisible Church which can be visibly identified only by subjectively divining 3 marks. Since this week, we've focused on Matthew 13 at Church, which talks at length about the Church as Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, I decided to make a series of posts examining the individual claims on the subject made by various Reformed Confessions. Today, it's the 1556 Confession of the English Congregation at Geneva, an English Reformed [Calvinist] Confession, which says as follows [for readability reasons, I've removed the various Scriptural footnotes, except where it was relevant to my point; in those cases, I've included the Scriptural citations in brackets]:
"I believe therefore and confess one holy church, which (as members of Jesus Christ, the only head thereof) consents in faith, hope, and charity, using the gifts of God [...] to the profit and furtherance of the same. Which church is not seen to man's eye, but only known to God [Rom. 2:28-29] [...]"
So, like I said, the Chuch is defined as primarily invisible. The only Scriptural support they cite for this passage is Rom. 2:28-29, which is a bizarre choice: the " man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly" passage. He says you're saved not by what you appear to be externally, but who you are internally. If you assume what you mean to prove (that the Church is only the collection of the saved), then this passage is great support. But that assumption, in addition to not being proven by Romans 2:28-29, is flatly contradicted by the whole of Matthew 13: the Church is the Kingdom of God on Earth, but it has weeds among the wheat, bad fish among the good; it is compared to visible, tangible things like a pearl of great price and a mustard seed which grows into the largest of all the plants. In other words, the Bible describes the Church as (eventually) becoming a large religious body with both saved and unsaved members. Those attempting to prove that the Church is really just an invisible whatever-we-say-it-is have some serious Scriptural obstacles to overcome.
"But that church which is visible [...] has three tokens, or marks, whereby it may be discerned. First, the word of God contained in the Old and New Testaments, which [...] is above the authority of the same church [Eph. 2:19-21; Matt. 17:5; John 10:3-8], and only [alone] sufficient to instruct us in all things concerning salvation, so is it left for all degrees of men to read and understand. For without this word, neither church, council nor decree can establish any point touching salvation.
This is a really classic sola Scriptura fallacy. Namely, "all of God's word is vested in Sacred Scripture," therefore, "Sacred Scripture created the Church, rather than the converse," therefore, "the Church can't determine the meaning of Scripture." But if God's word isn't vested only in Sacred Scripture (which is, after all, what they're trying to prove), then the argument is wrong. Because the Scriptural passages that they rely upon for the second premise, Sacred Scripture created the Church, would only work if their original premise were correct. Those passages are Eph. 2:19-21, Matt. 17:5, and John 10:3-8 (click here for all on one screen). The first says that the Church is built "on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone," with no reference to Scripture at all. The second (and this is just bizarre) is God the Father's declaration, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" at the Transfiguration; the third is a chunk of the pastoral parable of the Gate for the Sheep. It's not even the part where Jesus says He's the Good Shepherd -- it's the part where He says that He's the Gate who lets in authentic Shepherds. It's a better argument for Petrine primacy (based upon His later words in John 21:15-17) than for sola Scriptura.

In reality, the various books of the New Testament are written to churches, so written Scripture cannot precede the Church. Many of these letters (known as the "Catholic Epistles") were written to the entire Church, which presupposes a universal Church preceding written Scripture. It was this Church universal, and these churches local, which received, compiled, and recognized as God-breathed, the various letters. The individual letters didn't come bearing a God-approved stamp; it was left to the churches to realize their authority. And when they were confused, the matter was resolved at a higher level: that of the Church council. While the Church didn't make them God-breathed, it did certify them as such, and is the only reliable indicator, since everything else, from competing traditions to disagreeing Church Fathers, falls short.

Certainly, it's true that the Church is founded upon the word (both oral and written) and the Word (made flesh) of God, and cannot go against Her commission by Him. But that's a totally different thing than "the Bible created the invisible Church."
The second [mark] is the holy sacraments []: to wit, of baptism and Lord's Supper;
which sacraments Christ has left unto us as holy signs and seals of God's promises. [...] Neither must we, in the administration of these sacraments, follow man's fantasy, but as Christ himself has ordained, so must they be ministered; and by such as by ordinary vocation are thereunto called. [Heb. 5:4; John 3:27] Therefore, whosoever reserves and worships these sacraments, or contrariwise contemns [despises] them in time and place, procures to himself damnation.
By this standard, the Early Church Fathers were damned heretics and idolators, because by no later than 110 A.D., St. Ignatius of Antioch was using the fact that the Gnostics "do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ" as a litmus for orthodoxy. And, oh yeah, no church prior to the Sixteenth Century meets this definition -- none of the schismatics who remained even vaguely recognisable Christians (which is to say, excluding the weirdos like the Gnostics) rejected the worship of the Eucharist. There's not a word written against the worship of the Eucharist by orthodox Christians in the Early Church (and plenty of words written for it).

Strangely enough, in this section, where they claim that anyone with an "ordinary vocation" is capable of performing the sacraments, they also include a citation to Hebrews 5:4, which warns against giving oneself a priestly office (in this case, the high priest's office, occupied by Christ; but nevertheless, some great irony). The passage reads, "No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was." And yet they use it to mean that you don't need a sacerdotal priesthood (like Aaron's was), but that the average people are sufficient. Incidentally, this was the position of Korah, contra Aaron, in Numbers 16. He declared, "You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD's assembly?" (Numbers 16: 3). And then proceeded to offer sacrifice to God by his own authority... and was swallowed up by the Earth (Numbers 16:31). If they're trying to draw an Old Testament parallel to the Aaronic priesthood, it's very effective.
The third mark of this church is ecclesiastical discipline, which stands in admonition and correction of faults. The final end whereof is excommunication, by the consent of the church determined, if the offender is obstinate. And besides this ecclesiastical censure, I acknowledge to belong to this church a political magistrate, who ministers to every man to every man justice, defending the good and punishing the evil; to whom we must render honour and obedience in all things, which are not contrary to the word of God.
It's interesting that the same anti-Catholics who criticize (rightly, to an extent) Catholics of old for injustices during the Inquisition don't get quite so riled up about this, but it's worth noting that here's an English Reformed Confession that says any Chuch which doesn't employ political (and not just eclessiastical) punishment isn't part of the true Church. So if your local church doesn't burn heretics, it's out of consideration. Or perhaps, history has proved that the English Reformed were wrong about the most basic of elements in their disputes with Catholics: what constitutes the Church. (Certainly, Protestants can forever redefine what makes the "true" Church, but it's at least instructive to see how well previous non-Catholic attempts have fared).

What's perhaps more interesting is that the Catholic Church, even while such thinking was in vogue, never fell into this trap. By interesting, I mean here, "additional evidence of infallibility." It's also worth noting that the early ecumenical Church Councils did not suffer from these sorts of embarassing anachronisms - they could speak with authority, and not need to be disavowed by their later adherents.

Ok, one down, numerous others to go. Message me (one way or the other) to let me know if this is interesting or not, because if no one is gaining anything by looking at these, I'll gladly stop. My interest in them is that these Confessions are still a pretty fundamental part of many non-Catholic Christians' creedal religious foundation, as well as their ecclesiastical history: these Confessions are the root which sprouted forth numerous Protestant denominations, and so it seems practical to examine the Scriptural foundation upon which these belief system were originally founded.

Sam Harris: Playing Fast and Loose With the Facts

For some reason, Sam Harris is sort of a big deal to the "New Atheists," as the angsty suburban anti-theists like to call themselves. What I can't get is why. Take, for example, his most famous book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. As with all great defenses of reason, Harris begins by telling a story to play with your emotions:
The young man boards the bus as it leaves the terminal. He wears an overcoat. Beneath his overcoat, he is wearing a bomb. His pockets are filled with nails, ball bearings, and rat poison. The bus is crowded and headed for the heart of the city. [...] The young man smiles. With the press of a button he destroys himself, the couple at his side, and twenty others on the bus. [...] The young man’s parents soon learn of his fate. Although saddened to have lost a son, they feel tremendous pride at his accomplishment. They know that he has gone to heaven and prepared the way for them to follow. He has also sent his victims to hell for eternity. It is a double victory.

Then, he gets to the "moral" of the story:
These are the facts. This is all we know for certain about the young man. Is there anything else that we can infer about him on the basis of his behavior? Was he popular in school? Was he rich or was he poor? Was he of low or high intelligence? His actions leave no clue at all. Did he have a college education? Did he have a bright future as a mechanical engineer? His behavior is simply mute on questions of this sort, and hundreds like them. Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy, “you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy,” to guess the young man’s religion? (p. 11-12)

He wants you to say "Muslim." He really does. He claims you can "almost bet your life on it." Harris has been one of the loudest and most obnoxious voices in the "Islam is not a religion of peace" crowd, largely because he doesn't think any Western religion is a religion of peace (as with all anti-theists, he has trouble pinning violence on Christianity's actual teachings, rather than the actions of some of her billions of followers, but what's a little fact like that matter when you're trying to prove that the actual teachings of the Western religions are all evil?). But wait. There's an endnote. An enterprising reader might wonder why a footnote is even necessary, since he hasn't actually presented any facts yet -- only a story. But it turns out, it's pretty important. It says:

Some readers may object that the bomber in question is most likely to be a member of the Liberations [sic] Tigers of Tamil Eelam—the Sri Lankan separatist organization that has perpetuated more acts of suicidal terrororism [sic] than any other group. Indeed, the "Tamil Tigers" are often offered as a counter­example to any claim that suicidal terrorism is a product of religion. But to describe the Tamil Tigers as "secular"—as R. A. Pape, "The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism," American Political Science Review 97, no. 3 (2003): 20-32, and others have - is misleading. (p. 229 n. 2)

Let's be clear. The Tamil Tigers are secular. Here's what the Library of Congress has to say about the LTTE:

Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) strongest of Tamil separatist groups, founded in 1972 when Tamil youth espousing a Marxist ideology and an independent Tamil state established a group called the Tamil New Tigers; name changed in 1976.

And R. A. Pape, who he references in the footnote, is interested in an unbiased view, as he is trying to determine the political motivations behind these bombings (as opposed to airing personal grievances against God). Pape says: "Religious fanaticism does not explain why the world leader in suicide terrorism is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a group that adheres to a Marxist/Leninist ideology," which I might add, is an anti-religious ideology. Even the Washington Post calls them an "avowedly secular rebel movement," noting that although the movement is "dominated by Hindus, the Tigers are predominantly ethnic and nationalist in outlook, with religion not playing a significant role in their actions."

So it turns out, that Harris' anti-Muslim fear-mongering aside, the biggest threat by suicide bombers doesn't come from religious motivations, but from a Marxist secular group. Indeed, if one were to be totally honest, we might have to include the fact that a number of the Palestinian terrorists are motivated by something distinct from religion (such as, say ethnic, national and political tensions): which is why you see things like the non-religious, Greek-Orthodox run, Palestinian terrorist group Black September kidnapping Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Pape notes that Even among Islamic suicide attacks, Pape notes, "groups with secular orientations account for about a third of these attacks." So Harris is actually wrong on two counts (at least). [Note: my point isn't that Islam hasn't lead to violence, it has; my point is that the single-minded religious animus isn't based on factual evidence, but an unbalanced hatred of all religion].

Turns out, Harris isn't so much a champion of reason as an anti-religious charlatan. He's aware of the fact that Tamils, not Muslims, are the number one suicide bombers. He's aware that the Tamils motivation can't be religious, because Hindu groups, including Hindu Tamil groups, in Indian (instead of Sri Lanka) don't engage in suicide bombings. So what's his reaction? First, to hide this information in a rarely-read footnote. Second, to present the false and misleading information as the introduction to the first chapter of the book, with the absurd claim that "you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it" that you know the religious affiliation of the bombers (when he knows that statistically, you don't).

He knows he doesn't have an answer to the Tamil argument. If he did, it would be in the text, not the footnotes. So after simply denying that they're secular (when everyone else says that they are) without providing any ... you know, reason, for this claim, Harris continues:

While the motivations of the Tigers are not explicitly religious, they are Hindus who undoubtedly believe many improbably things about the nature of life and death.

Wait, what? Even though facts don't bear out my absurd anti-religious claim, you know how zany those religious third-worlders are. They "undoubtedly believe" lots of stupid things! He's really just saying, "I bet they're religious!" And of course, since most people in the world are, there's a good chance he's right in many cases. But religious beliefs can't be what's motivating the Tamil Tigers. For starters, it's not a religious movement. Second, it's primarily, but not exclusively, Hindu -- so if Hindu beliefs are the motivation for these bombings, he's got a lot of non-Hindu suicide bombers to answer for. Third, like I mentioned above, countless Hindu Tamils in India share a common ethnicity and religion, without sharing a proclivity to suicide bombing. Turns out, Harris' view just plain falls flat. So then he goes from awful to worse:

The cult of martyr worship that they have nurtured for decades has many of the features of religiosity that one would expect in people who give their lives so easily for a cause. Secular Westerners often underestimate the degree to which certain cultures, steeped as they are in otherworldliness, look upon death with less alarm than seems strictly rational.

Wait, I'm sorry. What amount of alarm is strictly rational if one is an atheist? If the only thing that suicide (bombing or otherwise) results in is non-existence, why the fear? What, precisely, is rational about preferring life over death from an atheistic viewpoint? Particularly if potential bombers think that in their suicidal act helps their loved ones gain political freedom, the balance tips towards suicide bombing, in a worldview with no moral boundaries or consequences. Besides that, atheists are more likely than their "otherwordly" counterparts to kill themselves. A 2004 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found:

Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation. Unaffiliated subjects were younger, less often married, less often had children, and had less contact with family members. Furthermore, subjects with no religious affiliation perceived fewer reasons for living, particularly fewer moral objections to suicide. In terms of clinical characteristics, religiously unaffiliated subjects had more lifetime impulsivity, aggression, and past substance use disorder. No differences in the level of subjective and objective depression, hopelessness, or stressful life events were found.

So it's atheists, not the religious, who are more likely to go nuts and kill someone, whether it be a school shooting or a ethnic-political suicide bombing. So Harris is still batting a strong .000 for making rational, fact-supported claims. Let's see where he goes next. Oh no... it's another personal story in lieu of facts:

I was once traveling in India when the government rescheduled the exams for students who were preparing to enter the civil service: what appeared to me to
be the least of bureaucratic inconveniences precipitated a wave of teenage self-immolations in protest. Hindus, even those whose preoccupations appear to be basically secular, often harbor potent religious beliefs.

Did you see what he just did? He tried to convince you that "religion = suicide bombing," by telling a story where teenagers of no given political affiliation self-immolated. But if you assume "violent suicide = religious adherent," you can get to "religious adherent = violent suicide" in no time.

So let's summarize. Statistically, the number one source of suicide bombers is one of the rebel groups with the least connection to religion of any kind. Moreover, statistically, those with no religious affiliation are more likely to kill themselves. These stats might make a compelling anti-atheism argument: those who believe in nothing but race, or politics, or national identity tend to be the most fanatical, given the chance -- Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc., all bear this out. None were fueled by religion, and yet all were psychotically evil. Faced with these stats, Sam Harris, grand defender of reason, runs a factually inaccurate stereotype about Big Bad Islam, hides the facts disproving his stereotype, and then tries to defend them with more stereotypes about how obviously Hindus just must believe crazy things, and suicide bombers just must be religious, offering a silly personal story as "proof." [As for Harris' earlier question, “Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy, 'you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy,' to guess the young man’s religion?” the simpliest answer seems to be disproportionate media coverage, fueled by people like Harris himself.]

Oh yeah. And we still haven't made it past the second page of the first chapter. If this guy is the best that the New Atheists have to offer, I don't think we have to worry about Christianity going anywhere just yet.

The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, pt. 2

The other passage from the thirteenth Chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel that we looked at this week was Matthew 13:31-35, which includes two succinct parables:
Jesus proposed a parable to the crowds. “The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.”
He spoke to them another parable.“The Kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.”
All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. He spoke to them only in parables,to fulfill what had been said through the prophet:
I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world.

The two parables tell the same thing: the Church is going to start out incredibly small, and it's going to balloon into the largest Faith on Earth. Which it did. It's an incredible prophesy, and one which would have seemed absurd at the time that it was made. Oh yeah, if you're confused by the second parable, like I was: He's saying that the Church is going to grow like bread with yeast. And three measures of yeast, according to the sometimes-helpful, sometimes-awful NAB footnotes, is "an enormous amount, enough to feed a hundred people." It also, tellingly, connects the Church itself with Bread.

So we have a Church which began with a few dozen disciples, a ragtag, fumbling, bumbling crew, fishermen named Peter and Andrew, a tax collector named Matthew (who wasn't even entrusted with the public purse -- a job which went to one Judas Iscariot; cf. John 12:6), and eventually a tent-maker named Paul (to say nothing of the former prostitutes and demoniacs who followed Him as well). As Mother Angelica likes to put it, Jesus Christ entered human history with "a few stinky Apostles." Stinky indeed. And few and far between. When "a Pharisee in the Sanhedrin named Gamaliel" takes pity upon the Christians, He convinces the rest of the Sanhedrin not to crush the movement with the following eloquence:
"Fellow Israelites, be careful what you are about to do to these men. Some time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be someone important, and about four hundred men joined him, but he was killed, and all those who were loyal to him were disbanded and came to nothing. After him came Judas the Galilean at the time of the census. He also drew people after him, but he too perished and all who were loyal to him were scattered. So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God." (Acts 5:35-39)

Christianity in its early years was compared to other insignificant cults, with their few hundred members and their charismatic leaders, and seemed to be at the mercy of the Sanhedrin for its continued existence. It was expected to quickly die out. Today, if one counts the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant members, it's easily the largest Faith on Earth (in fact, Catholicism with either Protestantism or Orthodoxy is securely #1). Catholicism alone was bigger than any other world religion until last year, when Islam (spreading largely by the sword) overcame it. The bold prophesy came true.

But the prophesy tells us something else, two things, in fact. First, there can never be a global apostasy. There can have been no situation where all the Christians on Earth cease to be, or all fall away from the Faith, because in that situation, the parable was wrong. The seed didn't grow into the world's largest tree - it withered and died, and was replanted 1500 years later. Many Protestants (although certainly not all), Jehovah's Witnesses, and Mormons take a view that at some point (and of course, it's always unclear when, by whom, and how), the Church Christ founded was supplanted by the Catholic Church. Sometimes, to get around the obvious implications (that is, that Christ set up a Church that failed, contrary to His own predictions), they claim that "a remnant" remained. That the seed grew into a plant briefly, devolved back into a seed, and then waited it out. Problems abound with this interpretation. To begin with, we have no record of the Catholic Church ever opposing anyone representing modern LDS, Jehovah's Witness, or Protestant beliefs - we do have record of them opposing virtually every other heresy under the sun. In fact, most of the heresies we know about, we know from Catholic records opposing them. It would take a pretty bizarre conspiracy theory to claim that Catholics effectively suppressed all record of these "true Christians" for a millenium or more (depending on which "true Chrisitans" you mean - the Anabaptists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, etc.) -- all while leaving intact (and indeed, reproducing painstakingly by hand) the true Christian's Bible. Besides that, these "remnant" Christians were also, apparently, failing to live up to even the most basic demands of evangelism -- they just hid until the big bad Catholic Church had gone away, while the Catholic Church boldly faced death by the Romans until it conquered the entire Roman Empire without raising Her hand in violence [alternatively, some conspiracy theorists think this was pre-apostasy, so they'll claim these martyrs; they just have no martyrs or even evangelists after that until the Reformation or proto-Reformation].

But besides all these problems, perhaps the most basic is that it just doesn't comport with the two parables. Yeast and mustard seeds don't grow and then shrink and hide and then grow again when it's safe. Certainly, a mustard plant may lose branches (such as North Africa, whose limbs were chopped off by the sword of Islam), and disease may plague part of the tree, causing it to split off, but if 99.99% of the tree just withers and falls off, like the global apostasy theory presupposes, that's not a branch falling off. That's a tree dying. And you're left with a stump.

The other instructive point that these parables raise is this: anyone attempting to "restore" primitive Christianity is behaving like a man suffering a mid-life crisis. Of course the externals of a mustard tree look radically different than the externals of a mustard seed. To an outsider, they may even appear to be different things, like the way a fertilized ovum doesn't look like an old man. But intrinsically, they're identical. An old man was once a fertilized egg, and remains the same man throughout. The Catholic Church now looks very different than it did at the first Pentecost, but it's the same Church throughout.

Related to this is the fact that our understanding of certain things will grow and change over time: we'll have greater clarity. Only the keenest eye can tell what a mustard seed is compared to other seeds. That clarity grows in time. John Henry Cardinal Newman articulates this well. Our understanding of doctrines like transubstantiation or the Trinity evolve organically, not because anything new is added to the Faith, but because we better understand what's been there all along. The sapling's twigs we see grow into sturdy branches with more firmness and definition. Once again, it remains intrinsically and interiorly identical.

Is There Salvation Outside the Catholic Church?

There's going to be a lot of discussion on the visible v. invisible Church upcoming, I think. I'd like to look at a number of Protestant (particularly Reformed) Confessions, to see how they understand and identify the Church. But there's something I need to make clear, which is how Catholics understand the phrase extra ecclesia nulla salus, or "outside the Church there is no salvation." First of all, it does refer to the Catholic Church, and always has. Second, EWTN has already answered this better than me. So has Mark Shea.

Third, I'll address it anyways. A Catholic will acknowledge that a person may be invisibly connected to the visible Church. We've long acknowledged that those who are partially non-Catholic may still remain sufficiently so (the Eastern Orthodox, for example, were never considered all damned, and we have always recognized their sacraments as valid). Feeneyism has never been the actual position of the Church, contrary to the claims of some anti-Catholics and extreme self-described Catholics.

When people who think they're not Catholics continue to hold to Catholic doctrine, like Calvin's retaining of ex opere operatis, despite the lack of clear Biblical evidence, they're invisibly connected to the Church in some way. If they're saved, they're saved through these Catholic beliefs, warped and partially corrupted though they may be, as they move further from their Source. For example, Jimmy Swaggart may well be going to Heaven. Assuming that he is, it's not because of his hatred of Christ's Church; it's because he authentically believed in and loved Jesus Christ and tried to do what he thought Christ was telling him. His hatred of Catholicism must have been out of invincible ignorance (and frankly, given most people's misunderstanding of Catholicism, this is pretty reasonable). These people were rightly called by Msgr. Knox "Catholics malgré lui" (or "Catholics in spite of themselves").

Protestants tend to think something similar, I believe, about Catholics: that is, that if they're saved, it's because of their Christian Faith, not their distinctly Catholic beliefs. We just happen to think that the Christian Faith we hold in common is, and has always been, part of the Catholic Faith; it was given to Protestantism by Catholicism. Like I've said before, the five solas are subtractions from the Faith, not additions to it -- we've always affirmed Faith, Scripture, the Glory of God, etc. Nothing beneficial has been added from a dogmatic or doctrinal point of view: certain things have just been focused on more (which can be good, but often comes at a heavy cost). Catholics are actually much slower than Protestants to say "and the bar is precisely here." While Protestants typically claim that anyone who doesn't explicitly affirm the Lordship of Christ is damned, Catholics take more of a "God will decide" view -- those who authentically misunderstand Christ, or are mentally retarded, or have never of Christ, may still have responded to Him interiorly in a way that is beyond our grasp, and basically none of our business. We simply pray for their salvation and do what we can for such people while they are on Earth.

Nevertheless, the fact that some people are invisibly and unknowningly connected to the Catholic Church doesn't mean that the Church is Herself invisible. I may be an American in Europe, but that doesn't mean that America isn't a visible, identifiable place; what's more, that visible, identifiable place is my home. Incidentally, this is why Catholics use phrases like "come home to the Catholic Church," "the Journey Home," etc. Even if you were never a visible member of the Catholic Church, it is your home, and we firmly believe that God wishes you were here.

The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, Pt. 1

Anyone going to daily Mass recently (Friday, Monday, and yesterday) has heard a lot about "the Kingdom of Heaven" from Matthew 13. These Gospel passages are critically important for anyone trying to understand the Church that God Himself set up upon the Earth when He pitched His tent amongst us.

Friday's was this parable from Matthew 13:24-30:

"The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?' He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' His slaves said to him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?' He replied, 'No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, "First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn."
Yesterday, Jesus provided His own explanation for this parable (Matthew 13:36-43):

Jesus dismissed the crowds and went into the house. His disciples approached Him and said,“Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” He said in reply, “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man,the field is the world, the good seed the children of the Kingdom.The weeds are the children of the Evil One,and the enemy who sows them is the Devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. Just as weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his Kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace,where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father.Whoever has ears ought to hear.”
Here's why these passages are important. First, it means that the visible Church and invisible Church are actually connected; however, there are some people in the Church, in the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, who will be "collect[ed] out of His Kingdom" by angels and booted to Hell. So not only is the Church full of sinners, not only does the Church on Earth contain some people who will ultimately be damned, but Christ says that it contains some people who were put there by the devil himself.

So the next time someone tells you, "Oh, such-and-such Catholic commit this terrible sin; how can you claim to be the True Church on Earth?" just remember what Christ Himself had to say about it. And next time you get frustrated that there are so many flagrant anti-Catholics bearing the name Catholic, and using it to spread hatred against Catholicism (I'm thinking Catholics for Choice, Cuomo ("Personally against abortion, but wouldn't impose it") Catholics, Call to Action, Kathleeen "Obama is More Catholic than the Pope" Kennedy Townsend, "Catholic" Masons, etc., etc., etc.), just remember that even Jesus took a "pastoral" approach that probably irked some of His followers: "if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them." So maybe, by being in the Church, some of these people who seem like weeds will reveal themselves to be the wheat that God knew they were all along. Note, I'm not saying that excommunications aren't sometimes prudent and necessary, I'm all for employing that against the most recalcitrant; but Jesus is pretty clear that we're going to have to suffer a lot of people who seem to be weeds even within the Spotless Bride, the Church Herself.

Amongst other things, I would argue that this parable, with explaination, precludes one of the classic Reformed beliefs on the nature of the Church. The Reformed position cannot, by definition, identify Christ's Church with a single ecclesiastical Body: they may think that they're in the best church around, but they can't (and don't) claim that their denomination is the very one that Christ established. So they opt instead for a heavy emphasis on the invisible nature of the Church, and use three "marks" to identify which churches are really part of the Church.

Dr. C. Matthew McMahon acknowledges that the early Church was Catholic or, as he put it, "Pelagian and sacerdotalistic." Specifically, he cites Robert Reymond for the proposition that “Church historians are fairly unanimous in their observation that the church in many areas of the then known world rather quickly departed from the pure gospel and teaching of the apostles and began to espouse defective views of the Trinity and the person and work of Christ, and to advocate Pelagian and sacerdotalistic version of salvation.” So when the Church, all over the known world, is preaching the exact same thing, and it doesn't comport with your modern revision of what Christ really meant, how do you correct this? Easy. Claim that those people were never part of the Church, since the Church is the set of all of those people who agree with you. Or, as Dr. McMahon puts it, "The first mark of the church is the pure preaching of the Word of God and sound doctrine, for without this, the church could not possibly exist. Such a mark houses a certain amount of flexibility since some true churches are more pure or less pure than others." So it functions like a true-Church dimmer switch, with "more pure or less pure" true Church(es). Perhaps an especially true sermon makes you more the Church that Christ established on Earth, etc.

The problem with this, and all related, theories is that they seem to say that the only "true Church" or "pure Church" is the (invisible, hypothetical, and impossible to attain on Earth) one with all seeds and no weeds. It's a pleasant hope -- and we will have it one day... in Heaven, after the Last Judgment. But to claim that's the situation on Earth is to flatly contradict Christ's teaching, where He says that weeds will be taken "out of His Kingdom" on the Last Day.

Tomorrow, more on the Church as Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, this time looking at the teaching of Monday's Gospel.

Edit: I thought that this Eastern Orthodox website did a good job explaining the fallacy of an Earthly Invisible Church.

Grace, Predestination, and the Salvific Will of God

There's a fundamental tension in any talk about predestination and final judgment. From even a basic reading of the Bible, one realizes that (a) we can't earn our salvation; and yet (b) we do earn our damnation. This is a hard tension to resolve. Some resolve it by ignoring (b); in doing so, they seem to make God arbitrary. St. Augustine argues that all of us have earned damnation, but that in His mercy, God saves a few -- this is known as the massa damnata theory, since it considers humanity a "damned and damnable mass." While this meets the elements of (a) and (b), it raises new and troubling questions: why would an all-Loving, all-Good God only save a few? And if He chooses to save only a few, how can it be said that He has a universal salvific will (1 Timothy 2:4)? And if He chooses to damn the remainder, refusing them even the ability to be redeemed, how is He just? In fact, it seems that (b) [our earning our of damnation] may be something of a farce within the massa damnata theory, since those are punished who could not but sin. It's like criminalizing falling asleep, and then enforcing that law only against certain people (while others, in your mercy, you opt not to punish, though they're equally guilty) -- rather than proving you just or merciful, it would seemingly prove you neither. From Romans 2:11, we hear that God shows no favoritism, yet other passages from the same epistle have been used to defend His seemingly doing just that. That's the sort of mess the massa damnata theory has created (although much of the rest of St. Augustine's work on the topic is much more sensible).

The late Fr. William G. Most presents an extremely readable answer to these and countless more problems in his book Grace, Predestination, and the Salvific Will of God, by Fr. William G. Most. I've got to say that it's the most enthralling and insightful book I've ever seen on the topic. You can find the book on Amazon for $20, or from Christendom Press for $16. Catholic Culture carries the entire book in free electronic format here, as well as a short bio of the author and Most Theological Library search engine. Catholic Culture is awesome (it's sort of a Catholic CCEL, but with a better library and easier-to-read format). [Tip of the hat to Fr. Gregory Ned Blevins of the Antiochian "Catholic" Church in America for the book recommendation].

Here's Fr. Most's thesis, with my underlining added:
There are three logical stages in the process of predestination:
1) The universal salvific will, which is sincere and extremely strong.

2) The reprobation of all whom God foresees will gravely and persistently resist grace: Reprobation after and because of foreseen demerits.

3) Predestination of all others, in whom God does not foresee grave and persistent resistance. [The absence of resistance of which we speak is not a positive decision or act of the will made under the form of explicitly making a decision to abstain from sin. Rather, it is the mere absence of an evil decision, without any act of the will in the first part of the process in which grace begins to move a man. This will be explained more fully below in §§82 and 344-350. ]

This decree of predestination is a continuation and positive carrying out of the initial universal salvific will. The cause of this decree is not human merits-up to this stage, God has not looked at human merits, for, in the logical series at which God looks, merits are neither a cause nor a condition-the sole cause of this decree of predestination is the goodness and generosity of the Father who from the beginning wanted to save all and, at this point, actually decrees the salvation of all who do not resist gravely and persistently. No positive condition needs to be placed by man in order that God may predestine, because the strong universal salvific will continues in its course by its own force. A grave condition would have to be placed by man to interrupt the course of this will, but, precisely because this will continues in its course by its own force, nothing is required from man that it may continue, and at the proper point, decree predestination. For without predestination, that salvation which God willed from the beginning and still wills to confer could not be had: Predestination before consideration of merits.

If someone prefers, he could invert the order of the second and third stages.

So in other words, God desires to save all (without anyone having earned it), but He foreknows infallibly that some will "gravely and persistently resist" the grace He is willing to offer. He wishes that they would accept, yet He knows that they will freely choose not to. To make it more clear that those who are saved haven't "earned" their salvation by accepting the free gift of God's graces, he clarifies later in the book, "Insofar as the absence of resistance in the first logical moment is an ontological zero, there is no condition in the man who is predestined."

So Fr. Most (relying in no small part on those who have gone before him, but still posing some fascinating new insights) has successfully synthesized God's universal salvific will with the fact that we can't earn our salvation, and can (and do) earn our damnation.

The book is set up in sections, so you can skip around (much like St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa). It also flows pretty well if you read it straight through, although there's necessarily a bit of repetition (for those who are skipping to a specific section for an answer to a narrow question). The conclusion sections sum up everything that he's said.

The general approach to the book is to first ask: what does Scripture and the Magisterium (in this case, expressed through the Councils of Orange, Quiersy, and Valence) say on the topic? And then he proceeds from there. In his sights are two broad Catholic theological camps -- old-school Thomists (who he thinks inadvertantly misrepresent part of Aquinas' theology) and Molinists (who also deviate from Molina at points). Thomists emphasis predestination much more; Molinists are very into the idea of free will. It's sort of a Calvinist/Arminist squabble writ small, because there are boundaries to how extreme either camp can go, based upon Magisterial teaching. Fr. Most points out the short-comings in both the old Thomist and the Molinist approach, and he advances a view that I think is very nearly flawless. He tsk's both camps for focusing too much on metaphysics and philosophy, and too little on Scripture and the Magisterium.

So yeah. I like his approach and his conclusions. It's definitely changing the way I think about these issues. The two things that I'd mention briefly: (1) this doesn't omit the need to do those works God calls us to -- this calling is a form of grace which is refused at our peril; and (2) just because it takes grave and persistent resistance, doesn't mean that a lot of people won't be in the category. The road to hell is still wide, even if God does a whole heck of a lot to keep us off of it.

As a final point, here's the analogy I would use to sort of create a picture of what Fr. Most's theory looks like:
Imagine God as a painter, who both advertises free home interior painting, and who goes door-to-door offering the same. Some people will let Him come in and slowly transform them interiorly; others may let Him in initially, and then refuse Him (still others, the reverse of that); and others will simply slam the door in His face every time He stops by, until He stops knocking. Since He's God, He packs exactly the right amount of paint, and He has a list with the names of everyone who will accept. But His offer to those who slam the door in His face is genuine. If He wanted to break into their home, He could -- He's that powerful. But He respects their stupid decision, because He loves and respects even them.

Later, when their houses burn down (because they don't have His fireproof paint), they have only themselves to blame. When their neighbor's house remains standing, they have only Him to thank. It isn't like the saved neighbor painted her own house (the works-rightousness position), or even did something admirable by letting God come in and paint (although accepting the gift was undoubtedly wise, nonetheless).

We see His advertising and His handiwork everywhere (Creation, the Bible, the Church, our friends), and we hear Him knocking on our door (Rev. 3:20). But He still authentically gives us a choice. This is best illuminated in a terribly sad verse, as Fr. Most points out:
Similarly, Psalm 80:14* represents God as speaking: "If only my people would hear me, and Israel would walk in my ways. . . ." But again, these words suppose that it really does depend on Israel whether or not Israel listens to God when He speaks. Otherwise God would not say: "If only, . . ." but rather, He by Himself would arrange everything, for it would be a mockery to ask a people for that which is not in some way under their control.
*This is Psalm 81:13 in most Protestant Bibles, due to a difference in numbering.

Something You May Have Missed From Sunday's Gospel

John 6:1-15 was Sunday's Gospel, in case you're not Catholic or missed it. It's the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Here's what you may have missed: an answer to the classic question, "If the Eucharist is so important, why doesn't John mention Its institution at the Last Supper?"

Many Catholics seem to have picked up on the significance that all of the action in John 6 takes place in a 24-hour period. John 6:1-15, Loaves and Fishes, takes place during the day. John 6:16-21, Jesus Walking on Water, takes place that evening, and is due to Him withdrawing from the people (who want to make Him a human ATM/vending machine and secular king). John 6:22-71, the Bread of Life discourse, begins the next day, and significantly, is to the same crowd as who received the loaves and fishes.

The Bread of Life discourse is very Eucharistic:
Whoever eats* my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.

The NAB footnote mentions that the term used isn't the normal word for eating, but means more literally "munch" or "gnaw," and is hyper-literal. Jesus used a term which wasn't a common metaphorical term, seemingly to dispel any notion He was speaking anything but literally. In any case, the crowd initially (John 6:34) has trouble understanding that He's not talking about bread or manna in the way He had been yesterday, but that He means spiritual Bread. When they grasp this, they think (John 6:41-42) He's just saying that He's come down from Heaven; in other words, they take a metaphoric interpretation. Then, they get it (finally -- John 6:52). While He re-explains past their confusion the first two times, He does not do so the third [precisely because there was no confusion]. At that point, a lot of them freak out (John 6:60) and bail out (John 6:66). Jesus still doesn't let up, presenting the Eucharist as a sort of ultimatum even to the Apostles (John 6:67), although Peter meets the challenge (John 6:68-69).

So what was the important and easy-to-miss detail in all of this? It's back at the start of the chapter, in the loaves and fishes account. Specifically, John 6:3-4
Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. The Jewish feast of Passover was near.

"The mountain" has really important symbolism almost every time it's mentioned. It's a spot of teaching, and it's where the Law came down from God in Exodus. It signifies both that Jesus is the Word Incarnate, and that He is a great teacher (hence the "Sermon on the Mount"). But more importantly for our purposes, John's Eucharistic discourse, like the other three, takes place at Passover-time -- the Eucharist and the Passion are forever and inseparably linked.

So yeah, John does introduce the Eucharist; he just does it a year earlier than the Synoptics.

Divorce and Remarriage: The Pastoral Approach

In response to my last post, DJ AMDG has suggested that, while perhaps doctrinally sound, it lacks any pastoral sense. Fair enough. I'm not a pastor, and the last post was more to explain what the appropriate doctrine was, not how to apply it to an individual's case. But he's right that that's important. Specifically, he says:
The church has a responsibility to not only establish doctrine for the discipleship (and safety) of those within, but it must also provide for reconciliation and a path to wholeness for those who have sinned.

So here are the ways I see the Church fullfilling that responsibility. To be clear: if you divorce, you have a responsibility not to remarry. But let's say that you do divorce and remarry. At some point, you realize that this is sinful, and you want to do something about it. What should you do?
  1. First and foremost, go to confession. If you're truly sorry for your sins, God grants you absolution through the person of the priest. Support for this comes from John 20:21-23, where Jesus commissions the Apostles to forgive sins with the power He bestows upon them. If you make a good confession, you're a clean slate. You're completely cleansed.
  2. This leaves, of course, the problem that you have someone you're married to in the eyes of God, that you're not married to in the eyes of the state (your "ex-spouse"); and someone you're not married to in the eyes of God, who you are married to in the eyes of the state (your current "spouse"). How should you react to this? It depends in large part on the situation: are there kids? What do the "spouse" and "ex" think about all of this? And so on. So the next step is to talk to a reliable and orthodox priest who has some experience handling such cases.
  3. At the minimum, stop sleeping with your new "spouse" -- that's adultery. On the other hand, if your "spouse" is fine living as brother/sister with you to raise children, this is an often pursued solution. It should be made clear, so as to avoid the appearance of evil, that the relationship is not a sexual or marital one, but a way to create a stable and loving environment for children (particularly if the children are the offspring of you and your "spouse" instead of your "ex").
  4. There may be extreme measures taken: for example, remarrying and recommitting to your initial (and valid) spouse.
  5. On the other hand, it may be that your initial marriage was never valid in the eyes of God. A canon lawyer can examine the case, and advise you. It may be that you were insufficiently aware at the time you married exactly what it was that you signed up for. Be careful and honest about pursuing this option: if you genuinely believe that your initial marriage was invalidly contracted, go forward; but don't abuse it. If a tribunal finds that the marriage was not valid at the time it was contracted, it is declared null. (The tribunal isn't, and can't be, infallible, because it's hard to know exactly what people are thinking -- they look to expressions of internal desire, but these things can be a bit hairy; However, we believe that as long as the spuoses pursued the annulment in good faith, God will respect the declaration). Cases warranting annulment include things like forced marriage, invalid (i.e., incestual) marriage, and some other strangely specific cases. For example, the Code of Canon Law says that if you kill either your spouse or your love interest's spouse for the purposes of marrying him/her, you legally cannot. As in, you two can never validly marry in the eyes of God or the Church. But if you kill him/her for some other reason, it's presumably not barred? (Perhaps you kill him in a barroom brawl, and feel so guilty, you marry his widow). There are a few overarching "you weren't aware what marrying meant at the time" provisions, and a lot of interesting nuanced rules.*

I should add also that the Church does not prohibit civil divorce, although it believes (rightly, I think almost anyone would admit) that it's an overused recourse which should be saved for extreme situations. Nevertheless, it may be that due to abuse of either you or your children, substance abuse or other addiction, or some other destructive and disruptive behavior, that the best thing you can do is to file for civil divorce. Fair enough. But in that case, you don't get to remarry. You live celibately.

This is increasingly viewed as harsh, but it's pretty well in keeping with the general way that the Church understands those who are called to celibacy, particularly, since here, the celibacy is conditional: if your spouse genuinely reformed their life, it might (depending heavily upon the circumstances, odds of recidivism, nature of previous wrongs, etc.) warrant civilly re-marrying them, at which point the conjugal life could resume.

Anyways, like I said, the Church has pastors, and I'm not one of them, even by disposition. But hopefully, this helps anyone trying to divine the solution to their individualized set of problems.

*At first brush, this may seem absurd. Why so many rules? That's easy enough - there's lots of gray area throughout history. Women sold by their fathers into marriage: are they married in the eyes of God? What about those who marry under threat of death by the spouse? What about those who marry because of mistaken identity -- i.e., the very thing that happened to Jacob in Genesis 29:25? What about those who marry for a specific non-romantic reason (i.e., to solidify a peace treaty, or for land, or for money)? What about those who marry for such a non-romantic reason, and then find out the other spouse was lying (i.e., never intended peace, or has no land or money)? When you get into the thick of it, the motivations of those seeking marriage are often less than ideal, and it's important to set clear standards as to when what they're seeking just plain old isn't marriage.

Divorce and Remarriage in Matthew's Gospel

Looking at Mark 10:1-12 and Matthew 19:1-12, the late Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., who served as a professor of Theology and Church History at Andrews University, went over all of the possible meanings of porneia and moicheia. (For more on this, click the annulment tag at the bottom of this post -- it explains it in more depth). In his section on "4. The Teaching of Jesus in Matthew," he says, regarding the view that takes (that porneia means something broader than adultery, and allows an exception for divorce), "In spite of its popularity, this interpretation has several problems." He then names several:
  1. It "contradicts the immediate context where Jesus rejects the Mosaic provision of divorce as being against God’s creational plan for the permanence of the marriage union: 'What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder' (Matt. 19:6). [...] In the light of Christ’s refusal to accept the Mosaic provision for divorce, it is hard to imagine that He would make allowance for the dissolution of marriage in the case of sexual misconduct. If the latter were true, Jesus would be contradicting what He had just affirmed regarding the permanence of the marriage union."
  2. Additionally, if "Jesus permitted divorce for sexual misconduct, He would have hardly provoked such a reaction on the part of His disciples, since such a view was widely known and promoted by the rabbinical school of Shammai. The astonishment of the disciples indirectly proves that they understood Christ’s standard for marriage to be immeasurably higher and more exacting than that of the stricter rabbinical school of interpretation." Why would "Christ teach that our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees and then side with one party of the Pharisees by saying that a man should not divorce his wife except for the cause of unfaithfulness?"
  3. It contradicts Mark and Luke, and as I mentioned previously, while "today we can bring together the teaching of Jesus on divorce as found in all the three Synoptic Gospels, the Gentile readers of Mark’s or Luke’s Gospels, who did not have access to Matthew’s Gospel which circulated primarily among the Jewish-Christians, had no way of knowing that Jesus made allowance for divorce and remarriage in the case of marital unfaithfulness." So this would create two laws, one for the Jew, and one for the Gentile.
  4. This view also "contradicts Paul’s 'no divorce' teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, [where]Paul claims to give Christ’s own command by enjoining the wife not to separate from her husband and the husband not to divorce his wife."
  5. An interesting fact I hadn't noticed: "there is no provision in the Pentateuch for divorce in the case of adultery. The penalty for proven adultery was death (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22, 23-27) and not divorce. The same was true in the case of a woman who had engaged in premarital sex before marriage (Deut 22:13-21). She was stoned to death and not divorced. There are no indications in the Pentateuch that divorce was ever allowed for sexual misconduct." So if Jesus meant to allow an exception for adultery, He was broadening the right to divorce in this area, not narrowing it (which contradicts the entire context of His statement).
  6. He also quotes Edward Schillebeeck, who says, "If Matthew 19:9 is taken to mean that Jesus was siding with the followers of the school of Shammai, who permitted divorce on grounds of adultery, then the astonishment expressed in the apostles’ answers would be incomprehensible—‘then it is not expedient to marry’ (19:10). Their astonishment is only explicable if Christ in fact rejected all possibility of the dissolution of marriage. His rejection is reinforced by the statement: ‘Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given.’"

Dr. Bacchiocchi concludes that "in the light of the foregoing considerations, we re bound to conclude that it is most unlikely that by the exception of porneia, Jesus meant to allow for divorce and remarriage on the grounds of adultery or sexual misconduct. Respect for the astonishing and radical teaching of Matthew 19:3-9 requires that porneia be interpreted in a narrower sense." After considering other options, he concludes that interpreting the exception clause to preclude "Marriages Unlawful According to Mosaic Law" is "the most satisfactory and enjoys considerable scholarly support." (In other words, the Catholic view is correct: a total ban on divorce and remarriage, unless the marriage isn't valid). This, despite the fact that Dr. Bacchiocchi was not himself Catholic: he could still acknowledge that the Catholic view on a particular issue was correct. He then provides a wealth of examples supporting this conclusion. In addition to the examples I've provided in the past, he offers three more which I hadn't:

  1. Other uses in the NT: Dr. Bacchiocchi explains that when Acts 15 discusses porneia, they actually mean incest. I'd been baffled by this use of the term, because James refers to idol sacrifices, porneia, things strangled, and animals with blood still in them - incest didn't seem to belong in the category, but it turns out, he's referencing Leviticus 17-18, where these four things are banned. He lists them out of order, but the Council puts them in correct order: "Idol Sacrifices Lev. 17:8-9; Blood Lev. 17:10-12; Things Strangled Lev. 17:13-14; Porneia Lev. 18:6-18." In the Levitical context, the meaning as "incest" is clear. Eventually, Gentile Christians accepted Levitical bans on incest: Acts 15 seems to be the key for holding on to that part of the Law.
  2. Support from contemporary Jewish sources: "Joseph Fitzmyer has shown that porneia is the Greek translation of the Hebrew zenut (cf. LXX Jer 3:2,9) which is used in the Qumran material to refer to marriage within the forbidden degrees of relationship."
  3. Historical setting: Dr. Bacchiocchi suggests that the Pharisees hoped to trick Jesus into openly attacking Herod's incestual relationship, the kind of open attack that got Jesus' cousin killed.

So it seems that even someone who rejects the authority of the Catholic Church can still recognize, on the basis of sound Biblical exegesis, that the Catholic position on a total bar to divorce and remarriage (when the marriage is valid) is correct.

Ross Douthat: Columnist to Keep an Eye On

Without a doubt, the most thoughtful and engaging New York Times columnist is Ross Douthat. He's one of very few people at the Times qualified to speak on the issue of religion (in that he doesn't write faith off as a cute escapism, opiate of the masses, sociological abnormality, nor does he view religion as a potential political demographic or hate group). He's also a good writer, to boot. Here's what he said about Caritas in Veritate, and papal encyclicals in general, in his clever article The Audacity of the Pope:
When a pope criticizes legalized abortion, liberal Catholics nod and say that
yes, they agree, it’s a terrible tragedy ... but of course they can’t impose
their religious values on a secular society. When a pope endorses the
redistribution of wealth, conservative Catholics stroke their chins and say that
yes, they agree, society needs a safety net ... but of course they’re duty-bound
to oppose the tyranny of big government. And when the debate isn’t going their
way, left and right both fall back on flaccid rhetoric about how the papal
message “transcends politics,” and shouldn’t be turned to any partisan purpose.

And a controlled yet devestating critique of Dan Brown and his readers:

But the success of this message — which also shows up in the work of Brown’s many thriller-writing imitators — can’t be separated from its dishonesty. The “secret” history of Christendom that unspools in “The Da Vinci Code” is false from start to finish. The lost gospels are real enough, but they neither confirm the portrait of
Christ that Brown is peddling — they’re far, far weirder than that — nor provide a persuasive alternative to the New Testament account. The Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — jealous, demanding, apocalyptic — may not be congenial to contemporary sensibilities, but he’s the only historically-plausible Jesus there is.

For millions of readers, Brown’s novels have helped smooth over the tension between ancient Christianity and modern American faith. But the tension endures. You can have Jesus or Dan Brown. But you can’t have both.

Anyways, I've been reading him for a while, and have been quite pleased. He usually writes on all things political (and handles that job capably), but I've been pleased with his periodic religious writings. Which is weird to say about a Times writer, right? Anyways, here's his corpus for the Times, as well as his previous work for the Atlantic Monthly.

Is the Book of Judith Historically Accurate?

I. General Historicity of the Deuterocanon

One of the oft-repeated claims against the validity of the Deuterocanonical books is that they're historically unreliable. This is generally untrue. In fact, without them, there's no Biblical record for the establishment of one of the biggest religious holidays in Judaism: Hanukkah, which Jesus Himself celebrates (see John 10:22). Presumably, He wasn't duped by some fictitious pseudo-history. Jesus at the very least seems to acknowledge the historicity of the miraculous events described in 1 and 2 Maccabees, the events which Hanukkah celebrates. And 1 and 2 Maccabees also contain the divine command to celebrate the holiday (1 Maccabees 4:36-59; 2 Maccabees 1:18-2:19; 10:1-8).* Jesus is, to all appearances, obeying the Divine Law as found in 1 and 2 Maccabees, just as He obeyed Divine Law found elsewhere in the Old Testament when He celebrated Passover, or was circumcised, etc. And more than that, He is celebrating it at a time and in a context where it will be understood that way: many of His followers would have believed that these were inspired texts. If He knows that these texts are spurious and uninspired, this is a bizarre way of signalling that.

II. The Weakness of the Argument Against Judith 1:1

So I think that the Deuterocanon is a very valuable historical source in addition to being (and even, as a result of being) God-breathed. But there are definitely parts where they fail even a basic historical test... right? Here's the one I've heard most often. The Book of Judith begins, "It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh. At that time Arphaxad ruled over the Medes in Ecbatana" (Judith 1:1). Hold on, say modern Protestants. Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians? That guy was king of the Babylonians.

To which the writer of Judith would say, "Obviously." I mean, it's one thing for a modern Protestant to think that an ordinary reader doesn't remember if Nebuchadnezzar was king of the Assyrians or the Babylonians, but do they honestly think that a pre-Christian diaspora Jewish audience wouldn't catch that mistake... immediately? The Babylonian and Assyrian captivities were some of the most important and traumatic events in Jewish history, and a whole lot of the Old Testament that they pored over discusses these two events... as separate events. Essentially, the Assyrians conquered the nortern kingdom of Israel, and the Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom of Judah. From these two conquests, we get the "lost tribes of Israel," the destruction of the First Temple, and oh yeah, the creation of the Diaspora communities which held to these texts as Sacred Scriptures. These events were massively influential.

You wouldn't have to be literate to know the difference between the Assyrians and the Babylonians, but presumably, the readers of Judith were that as well. Do these "skeptics" really think it's plausible that neither the author, nor the scribes, nor the audience knew even the basics of their own history? This is the Biblical equivalent of the famous movie line, "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" Or to take perhaps the two most traumatic events in modern Judaism, it would be like a modern Jewish source beginning, "When Hitler was the head of the Soviet Union in Moscow..." and no one noticing.

Does anyone think that the Diaspora Jews (or anyone) was that dumb? To not only not know their Scriptures, but not know their own history? Sure, a few people might miss it, like those people who fall for the old "How many animals did Moses take on his Ark" trick. But like I've said, this wasn't just Scripture, it was history. Jewish history was like Moses and George Washington rolled into one, the source of their national, ethnic, and religious identity. You might as well think that the author of Revelation 11:8 really thought that Jesus died in Sodom, Egypt.

III. What's Really Going on in Judith 1:1

So what's going on here? Or perhaps a better question is, "why would a Jewish audience who could tell from the first verse of the Book that this wasn't traditional history embrace it as Scripture?" Well, I think that what's going on is the same thing that's happening in the Book of Revelation: there's an epic historical battle layed out in a mix of historical and metaphorical terms.** Let's break down the first verse to get a sense for it:
"It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh. At that time Arphaxad ruled over the Medes in Ecbatana"

Well, the players on the scene are: Nebuchadnezzar, the Assyrian Empire (and specifically, Nineveh), and Arphaxad, who ruled "over the Medes in Ecbatana." There is no Medean ruler named Arphaxad at the time of either the Babylonian or Assyrian Empire, but Arphaxad does appear elsewhere in the Bible. He's one of the sons of Noah's son Shem, and Jewish tradition associated the various peoples of the Middle East with each of the sons and grandson of Noah. Here's what the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Joseph had to say about Arphaxad in the first book to his Antiquities of the Jews:
Shem, the third son of Noah, had five sons, who inhabited the land that began at Euphrates, and reached to the Indian Ocean. For Elam left behind him the Elamites, the ancestors of the Persians. Ashur lived at the city Nineve; and named his subjects Assyrians, who became the most fortunate nation, beyond others. Arphaxad named the Arphaxadites, who are now called Chaldeans. (Book 1, Chapter 6).

So we now have Judith, whose name just means "Jewish Woman," up against the combined forces of the Babylonians, Assyrians, Medeans, and Chaldeans. The story continues in a similar vein. If you watch closely, you'll see the actions of various real-life Jewish women drawn together in what seemingly is a Grand Narrative about the way that faithful Jewish women have overcome massive obstacles in a corrupt man's world. In other words, this is Genesis 3:15, played out throughout all of history, and brought together in a particularly beautiful way in this Book.

Perhaps the key to understanding the Book is Judith 6:19, where the people pray, "Lord, God of heaven, behold their arrogance! Have pity on the lowliness of our people, and look with favor this day on those who are consecrated to you." The answer to this prayer is echoed in another prayer, where we see this same powerful humility exhibited by a certain Virgin, consecrated in a special way to God, who prays:

"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away
He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." (Luke 1:46-55)

Judith herself is a treasure trove of Scriptural allusions and prophesies. In Judith 8, she responds to the leaders (who are threatening to turn the city over to their enemies, if God doesn't save them in 5 days). Her speech begins at 8:11-12, where she asks, "Who are you, then, that you should have put God to the test this day, setting yourselves in the place of God in human affairs?" and ends with a profound understanding of suffering in 8:27: "Not for vengeance did the Lord put them in the crucible to try their hearts, nor has he done so with us. It is by way of admonition that he chastises those who are close to him." Judith, better than virtually anyone before or since, understands that God desires to be Father, not simply Master. In another echo of the Magnificat, Judith promises in 8:32, "I will do something that will go down from generation to generation among the descendants of our race." (She also repeatedly refers to herself as a handmaid throughout Judith 12, but that might be coincidental).

While we see elements of previous Old Testament women, such as Esther, Deborah, and particularly Jael (from Judges 4-5), in these accounts, they're about faithful women generally. That's why Judith 15: 12-13 says that after she slay the evil general Holofernes,

"All the women of Israel gathered to see her; and they blessed her and
performed a dance in her honor. She took branches in her hands and distributed
them to the women around her, and she and the other women crowned themselves
with garlands of olive leaves. At the head of all the people, she led the women
in the dance, while the men of Israel followed in their armor, wearing garlands
and singing hymns.

In other words, this is a triumph of all faithful women in Israel and, as can be seen by their gallant followers, all faithful men, as well.

One final note on the Book's Marian imagery; a line from Judith 15:9: "You are the glory of Jerusalem, the surpassing joy of Israel; you are the splendid boast of our people," has historically been applied to Mary in Church liturgies. Which is just to say that I'm not the first person to notice a whole lot of Marian parallels throughout.

Anyways, those are some of my thoughts on the Book of Judith. Hope that helps anyone confused by its sort of strange style!

*Modern Jews, who reject the Deuterocanon, continue to celebrate Hanukkah based upon the law found in the Babylonian Talmud, or just as a cultural tradition. But I think that it's safe to say that no one contends that Jesus viewed the Babylonian Talmud as binding?

** I don't want to get too off topic by delving into Revelation, given the length and complexity of this post already. But suffice it to say this: the Church has historically understood that Revelation deals with specific historical events (Nero's persecutions, the destruction of the Second Temple, etc.), as well as with a broader Grand Narrative about the faithful, marked with the sign of the Cross, facing off against the forces of corrupt government and corrupt religious authorities. There's also a very strong liturgical element to Revelation. All of this and more is spelled out by Scott Hahn in The Lamb's Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth. Check it out.

Is Scripture Self-Attesting?

I went to an interesting Theology on Tap lecture last night, given by Joe Manzari called "Confessions of a Former Calvinist: The Top Five Reasons Your Protestant Friend Isn't Catholic" (it'll post here eventually). The summer 6-pack is all about Converts and Reverts, so it's a bit more personal and narrative than general apologetics. It's a specific, "here were my issues about the Catholic Church," and a "here's what drew me," and he did a good job saying upfront that even if he says, "Protestants believe..." that he really means "the group of Protestants I knew well believed..." since there isn't a whole heck of a lot of doctrinal unity on anything within Protestantism.

But one of the things that Joe M. talked about was where Scripture comes from. He was a "hardcore Calvinist" before becoming Catholic (they put pictures of him up in his old church to tell everyone he was excommunicated and should be avoided; they were that hardcore). When he started to question how we know which Bible is correct, he was told that Scripture is self-attesting. And indeed, that's very Calvinist. He quoted Calvin, from his Institutes:
“Let it therefore be held as fixed that those who are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit acquiesce implicitly in Scripture; that Scripture carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit. Enlightened by him, we no longer believe, either on our own judgment or that of others, that the Scriptures are from God; but, in a way superior to human judgment, feel perfectly assured - as much so as if we beheld the divine image visibly impressed on it - that it came to us, by the instrumentality of men, from the very mouth of God.” -Institutes, 1.7.5

So Calvin's argument is, more or less, "If you're guided by the Holy Spirit, you'll know what is and isn't Scripture." Then he read from Martin Luther's introduction to the book of Revelation:
About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own opinions. I would not have anyone bound to my opinion or judgment. I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.

So by Calvin's logic, Luther isn't internally guided by the Spirit, since he doesn't "feel" that Revelation is inspired. But, says Joe Manzari, this logic would also cast doubt upon the Spirit's guidance of a huge number of early Christian martyrs, who were willing to die for a Faith whose precise canonical contents they disagreed over. He mentioned, briefly, the controversy of the New Testament Deuterocanon (2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, etc.); lots of devout early Christians thought those books might not be inspired, while other books like the Didache or Shepherd of Hermas might be.

To show the other shortcoming of this approach, Joe introduced this passage with relatively little lead-in:
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

This, he says, is the equivalent to what Calvin is asking people to do. Read the text, and if they subjectively get the feeling that the Spirit wants them to believe it, then believe it, no matter what "history" or "the Church" says about it, since the Spirit is above those things. Well, the problem is, this is from Moroni 10:4-5, from the Book of Mormon. And a whole slew of people get that vague "warm spiritual fuzzy" when reading this. So on what basis can a Calvinist who gets a Spirit-feeling when reading the Protestant canon dispute Luther's early rejection of Revelation, or a Mormon's acceptance of Moroni, or a Catholic's acceptance of the Deuterocanon?

Update: the audio has posted.

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