Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Gamaliel's Challenge

On Friday, the First Reading was from Acts 5:34-42, which describes the trial of the Apostles before the Sanhedrin:

A Pharisee in the Sanhedrin named Gamaliel,
a teacher of the law, respected by all the people,
stood up, ordered the Apostles to be put outside for a short time,
and said to the Sanhedrin, “Fellow children of Israel,
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.”
They were persuaded by him.
After recalling the Apostles, they had them flogged,
ordered them to stop speaking in the name of Jesus,
and dismissed them.
So they left the presence of the Sanhedrin,
rejoicing that they had been found worthy
to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.
And all day long, both at the temple and in their homes,
they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the Christ, Jesus.

Gamaliel holds a position of great esteem within Judaism and Christianity. He was St. Paul's teacher, and was considered the last great rabbi. He was also the first person to ever be called "Rabboni," which means "Great Teacher" or "My Great Teacher." Jesus would later be given this title in John 20:16. So Gamaliel was the premiere rabbi and a leader amongst the Jewish people. It's significant that he took up the Apostles' defense since he was not himself a Christian (there's some debate over whether or not he converted to Christianity before he died, but this might be wishful thinking). In any case, the Bible mentions not only that Gamaliel defended Christianity, but the precise argument he used. The obvious reason is that his argument was valid. And here's what Gamaliel is arguing:

  1. Gamaliel is referring to the visible Church. In this case, the Apostles are on trial. They're the visible office-holders chosen by Christ. There may have been others (even Gamaliel himself) who secretly held the Faith, but that's not who he's referring to. He's referring just to the visible Church.
  2. This visibility is tied to unity. The followers of Theudas "were disbanded and came to nothing." There may have been those who privately rooted for Theudas, but without a unified body, they came to nothing. Likewise with Judas the Galilean, we know that the movement wasn't of God because "all who were loyal to him were scattered."
  3. The mark of whether the Christian movement is ordained by God is whether a visible, unified group of followers continued on forever.
  4. This group, which we'll go ahead and call the Church, is tied directly to God Himself. There's not a distinction between Christ and the Church. If you attack the Church, "you may even find yourselves fighting against God."
This is, I think, one of the strongest and simplest arguments for Catholicism vis-a-vis Protestantism that there is. Protestantism has been disbanded and scattered, while Catholicism has stayed united, carrying forward the same teachings, and with a single visible Church -- that is, there's no real confusion about which church is the Catholic Church, even if there are some rival claimants. If Gamaliel is right, and the inclusion of his speech in Acts suggests he is, then we should expect to see One True, Visible Church.

4 comments:

  1. I really like your point here, however some, and I might agree with them, may say that a visible church need not have a single hierarchy. I don't like the universal "invisible" church argument anymore than you do, however, if we are to say that "the Church, is tied directly to God Himself," then why must it also be tied (submitted) to a single authority - Rome?

    Why can't the "visible" church have unity in orthodoxy with submission to Christ central? I believe you make too big a jump when you say, "one of the strongest and simplest arguments for Catholicism vis-a-vis Protestantism that there is."

    Just playin' D.A. here...

    DJ|AMDG

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  2. DJ|AMDG,

    Re: you plyaing D.A., I wouldn't have it any other way.

    You ask, "Why can't the 'visible' church have unity in orthodoxy with submission to Christ central?" They can. And even, they must. It's a false dichotomy to say unity within the Church is different than unity under Christ. The only true unity is unity with Christ. Any form of unity at the expense of Truth is a false ecumenism.

    This raises a lot of question over "who is the final authority of what the Church teaches?" It also raises your other question, where you say, "I don't like the universal 'invisible' church argument anymore than you do, however, if we are to say that 'the Church, is tied directly to God Himself,' then why must it also be tied (submitted) to a single authority - Rome?"

    And I think the best answer comes from human experience here. Look at the history of every major form of Protestantism. It's not like they're united (either internally or with one another) in everything but hierarchy. They believe fundamentally different things, even if both call themselves Presbyterian, for example.

    Of course, there are Catholics who don't believe what the Church believes. But that's actually a proof for our claim -- there's something we can definitively point to as "what the Church believes." Functionally and historically, this has been possible only with a hierarchy, even if we could theoretically construct an alternative Church than the one which exists.

    So I don't think you need to presuppose "hierarchy good" -- I think you can conclude it from history in light of Gamaliel's challenge.

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  3. I would contend that "unity in orthodoxy with submission to Christ" doesn't mean anything without a visible authority. It was a visible authority that decided which books/letters are Sacred Scripture, defined terms, formulated creeds, etc. Any attempt to define "orthodox Christianity" means reaping the fruits of a visible authority. Appeal to Sacred Scripture is an appeal to the visible authority that compiled Sacred Scripture. Appeal to an ancient creed is an appeal to the visible authority that formulated said creed. Basically, we can pretend that visible authority is secondary to some overarching orthodox belief system, but that's all it is: make believe.

    Joe is absolutely right that there's really no unity under Christ without unity under a visible Church. There was a hierarchy among the disciples of Jesus. Not all were invited to His last meal. Not all were given the power to "bind and loose." Not all were commissioned to feed His sheep. The Catholic Church doesn't value unity under a visible authority because she made it up and has to defend it. The Catholic Church values unity under a visible authority because Christ does.

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  4. Fr. keep up with this wonderful apostolate. I am a seminarian in Nigeria and have read your works, they are very wonderful. Thanks

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