Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How Should We Understand Islam?

I noticed yesterday that the hot dog vendor near my work was gone, and I asked him about it today.  He informed me that he's Muslim, and that he'd taken off yesterday to celebrate Eid ul-Fitr, the “Festival of Breaking Fast.”

Like Judaism, Islam uses lunar calendars for months.  (By the way, this is why St. Paul refers to weeks and months as “Sabbaths” and “New Moons”  in Colossians 2:16 -- because the new moon separated month from month, just as the Sabbath separated week from week).  Yesterday celebrated the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which went from August 1st to the 30th.

Ramadan sounds pretty intense, not unlike the way Lent was (and in many parts of the Orthodox and Coptic world, is) celebrated:
During the month of Ramadan, adult Muslims engage in ritual fasting from sunup to sundown. This practice, Sawm, is one of the five pillars of Islam, and requires that individuals abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual intercourse. Each evening, Muslims will break the fast at sundown with Iftar, a traditional meal often beginning with the eating of dates -- an homage to a practice of Muhammad.
Consider, then, my hot dog vendor.  For an entire month, he sat or stood in a cramped hot dog cart, making hot dogs for other people -- and being unable to eat even a bite of food all day.  And no matter how hot he got in his cart, or how much he sweated, he was unable to take even a drink.  Certainly, he could eat and drink when it got dark, and he was back home, but I imagine standing in the heat, over delicious-smelling food, that's a small solace.

Even on the toughest of days - Ash Wednesday and Good Friday - I've had the comfort of at least not working in a food cart, and being allowed plenty of hydration.  I was struck by this, and what a beautiful testament it was to the man's faith.  And it got me thinking about Islam, and how we understand that religion as Catholics.


Islam and the True God

The Catholic Church is clear that Islam teaches some faulty and outright false things about God, and that these threaten a man's ability to come to a saving faith, or to properly do the will of God.  But the Church is also clear that Islam believes false things about the true God, rather than believing things (true or false) about some other god.


To use an analogy: if  you worship Jesus, but think He's a catcher for the Yankees, you're probably worshiping a different Jesus.  So it's possible to follow after false gods -- the pagans worshiped demons (1 Corinthians 10:20), for example -- but it's also to follow after the true God with some false beliefs. So if you worship Jesus, but think He was a fisherman (instead of a carpenter), you probably just have a mistaken belief about the actual Jesus of Nazareth.


Similarly, Islam affirms the God of Abraham is the true God.  They are right in doing so, whatever other faults may exist.  Christians sometimes stumble over this: how can Muslims be worshiping the same God as us, when they claim He has no Son (Sura 19:35)?  The answer's easy: they're wrong about Him having no Son.  Likewise, Calvinists believe that God predestines some people to Hell.   Does that mean that they worship a separate god, one who actually does double-predestine?  Of course not.  They believe in the True God, they're just wrong that this True God predestines people for Hell.

Any time you're trying to follow the God of Abraham, you're trying to follow the true God.  He more or less says as much (Genesis 28:13).  You might do so imperfectly -- with serious, salvation-threatening errors about His Nature and His Will -- but that doesn't mean you're following someone else. And this is true whether you're Catohlic, Protestant, Mormon, Jewish, or Muslim. That doesn't mean that these are all equally good roads to God,or anything of the sort.  These groups aren't equally right, and many teach things which threaten your eternal salvation.  But like I've said, they're wrong about God, rather than being wrong (or right) about Ba'al, or Zeus, or Odin, or demons.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

More Sketchy Translations by the NIV

In an earlier post, I talked about how the NIV (which I generally like) plays unfortunate sectarian games with its translations.  The example I gave was this one: the word paradosis means “tradition,” and the NIV translates it as “tradition” when its used in a negative sense in Scripture (when Christ condemns the Pharisees' adherence to traditions of men over the word of God in Mt. 15:1-9).  But when St. Paul talks about the Traditions we're bound to hold, in 1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, and 2 Thessalonians 3:6, the NIV translates the exact same word as “teachings,”  instead.

This reinforces the Evangelical error that Christ condemns Tradition, rather than condemning specific traditions which were obstructing obedience to the Gospel.  And it fuels ignorance: St. Paul says we're called to obey Apostolic Tradition, whether passed on in Scripture (“by epistle”) or word of mouth (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Protestantism has long been uncomfortable with that passage, but the NIV's solution to simply change what it says is obviously unacceptable.  (For the record, there is a Greek word for “teachings”: it's didaktos, and it's used in Matthew 15:9).

Well, Patrick Vandapool, who has a hilarious blog, makes a quite serious point: that the NIV also does this in dealing with works, as well as Tradition.  In translating the same word, ergon (which means “works”), here's what Patrick found:.
If the word ἔργον is used in a negative sense, it is translated as “work” 10 times and as “deed” 7 times.

More revealing is…

If the word ἔργον is used in a positive sense, it is translated as “work” 0 (zero) times and and as “deed” 17 times.
I haven't researched this one myself, but given what I've seen, it's not altogether surprising.  Certainly, Bibles are translated by teams of translators who don't always translate the same word consistently.  And sometimes, there are even good reasons to translate the same word in two (or more) different ways, depending on the context.

But here, the translation seems obviously sectarian.  Evangelicals accuses Catholics of defying Scripture by (1) holding to Sacred Tradition in addition to Scripture, and (2) by allegedly practicing “works-righteousness,” or in having too high a view of the role of works, generally. What the NIV editors have done is stack the Scriptural deck, and in the process, have introduced two new teachings:
  • “Teachings” are good, but “traditions” are bad;
  • “Deeds” can be good, but “works” are bad.
Significantly, these teachings weren't taught in the Bible, until the NIV changed what the Bible said!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Debunking "Easy-Believism"

Many Evangelicals will tell you that if you just pray the “Sinner's Prayer,” you'll be saved, of if that you have faith in Jesus Christ, He'll save you even if you don't obey Him.  In light of yesterday's Gospel  (Matthew 16:21-27), I want to address why this is flawed, and what this says about the larger debate about “faith and works.” I'm very much indebted to a powerful homily delivered by Fr. Kelly yesterday on the true cost of Discipleship.

I. What is Easy-Believism?

So what is easy-believism, and who buys into it?  The Calvinist website Monergism.org has a good description:
The term “easy-believism” is a usually derogatory label, used to characterize the faulty understanding of the nature of saving faith adhered to by much of contemporary Evangelicalism, most notably (and extremely) by such Dispensational authors as Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges. The term was popularized in an ongoing debate between Hodges, to whose theology the label “easy-believism” was affixed, and John MacArthur, to whom the term “lordship salvation” came to be applied.

Essentially, the teaching of “easy-believism” (which proponents prefer to call “free grace,” or some similar term), asserts that the faith which saves is mere intellectual assent to the truths of the gospel, accompanied by an appeal to Christ for salvation (at the end of his life, Hodges embraced the even more extreme position that salvation requires only an appeal to Christ, even by one who does not believe the most basic truths of the gospel, such as his death, burial, and resurrection [which he clearly taught, for example, in “The Hydra's Other Head: Theological Legalism,” printed in the Grace In Focus Newsletter]). According to proponents of the “free grace” movement (i.e. “easy-believism”), it is not required of the one appealing for salvation that he be willing to submit to the Lordship of Christ. In fact, at least according to some proponents, the person appealing for salvation may at the same time be willfully refusing to obey the commands of Christ; but because he has intellectual faith, he will still be saved, in spite of his ongoing rebellion.
So understand right off that this is something your Evangelical neighbor might well believe in, but probably not your “Reformed” neighbors.

II. What's an Easy Way to Know It's False?

Last Sunday's Gospel was the famous one from Matthew 16:13-20, in which Jesus changes Simon's name to Peter, and founds His Church upon Him, after Peter confesses Christ's Lordship. I want to just remind you of one part, Matthew 16:15-16,
He [Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
Father Kelly pointed out that this is one of the clearest declarations of faith in the Gospels. And Jesus tells us that this declaration of faith comes from God Himself (v. 17).  It's not simply an “intellectual belief,” as if Peter deduced it, but Divine revelation.  Jesus responds to this faith by blessing Peter in the ways I've described elsewhere. But look what happens next (Matthew 16:21-23):
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Peter's confession of faith, while inspired by God, doesn't prevent him from becoming an adversary to God -- in fact, it happens almost immediately.  Did Peter stop believing that Christ was the Messiah? Absolutely not: even in rebuking Jesus, he calls Him “Lord.”  Frankly, Peter's intentions don't even seem obviously wicked: he's not pursuing wealth, or fame, or women: he's just wanting the Gospel to be easy.  

Peter is suffering from a “disordered love,” where he wants what's easiest, rather than what's best.  We see this in parents who spoil their children, and (as Father Kelly emphasized in his homily), we're each guilty of it, every time we avoid proclaiming the Gospel to those we love.  We don't want to hurt their feelings, or we ourselves don't want to suffer, so we avoid saying and doing what we need to.  We become obstacles to God, stumbling stones on the way to the Gospel.

Jesus doesn't let us miss that this is the point of His rebuke (Mt. 16:24-27):
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then He will repay everyone according to his conduct.

Christ makes it clear that total self-denial and obedience is required for Discipleship, and required for salvation.  If you try and cling to your old life, if you want to believe that Jesus is the Messiah but not respond, you will lose your life.  On the other hand, if you respond to the Gospel, He promises to reward your conduct at the end of time.


So Peter's believing that Christ was the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” was great, but not enough. Next, he had to learn to act upon that belief, by denying himself, taking up his cross, and following.  He does this, and  Jesus hints at his manner of martyrdom in John 21:18-19.  Peter will ultimately be crucified upside-down, after he declares himself unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus.



III. What Does This Mean for the Debate About Faith and Works?

We know from the life of St. Peter that mere belief, even a belief revealed to us by God the Father Himself, isn't enough to save us.  If we want eternal life, we need conduct, not just belief.  When Catholics speak of the need for faith and works, that's what we mean: belief in Christ's Messiahship (faith), coupled with the conduct Jesus calls us to (works).

But here's the deal.  Proper conduct is tied to belief: it's all part of walking by faith.  We see this also from the life of St. Peter, after Peter sees Jesus walking on the water (Mt. 14:28-31):
“Lord, if it’s You,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to You on the water.”


“Come,” He said.


Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”


Immediately Jesus reached out His Hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” He said, “why did you doubt?”
Peter's conduct (walking on water) was only possible through faith. We know this, because once he doubted, he could no longer perform the conduct.  That captures the essence perfectly: the sort of works which Catholics talk about aren't something arising apart from faith, but are a part of faith.

The same is true in Matthew 16.  We only have the ability to deny ourselves when we cling to Him.  Only in believing in Him can we have the courage (or the graces) to take up our Cross and follow.  No one in history has ever lived a life of discipleship without having faith.  It's just not possible.

All of this makes me think that the classical Reformed (old-school Lutherans, Presbyterians, and the like), are much closer to Catholics than they are to Evangelicals on the question of how we're saved. Specifically, go back to that definition from Monergism.  They come close to grasping this when they denounce easy-believism like this:
According to proponents of the “free grace” movement (i.e. “easy-believism”), it is not required of the one appealing for salvation that he be willing to submit to the Lordship of Christ. In fact, at least according to some proponents, the person appealing for salvation may at the same time be willfully refusing to obey the commands of Christ; but because he has intellectual faith, he will still be saved, in spite of his ongoing rebellion.
Although they're Calvinist, they clearly believe that in order to be saved, you need to:

  1. Believe;
  2. Stop intentionally disobeying;
  3. Obey.

Those are the three things which the “Lordship salvation” adherents, like John MacArthur, teach. For Jesus to be Savior, He must also be Lord. Catholics agree completely.  We just describe it differently sometimes.

In a nutshell, mere belief won't save you, and most Protestants (outside of the so-called “free grace” movement, which proclaims “easy-believism”) seem to agree.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The D.C. Earthquake and the One-Armed Jesus Statue

With all the talk about the damage that the recent earthquake here did to the Washington Monument and the spires of the Anglican Washington National Cathedral, I thought I'd mention some earthquake damage which I haven't seen on the news: my own church, St. Mary's, now has a Crucifix with a one-armed Jesus, as the Statue's other arm broke off in the quake:


At first, I was really saddened by the damage to one of the Crucifixes dearest to my heart.  But upon a little reflect, I realized that such a connection between the Crucifixion and earthquakes is quite appropriate.  In Matthew's account of the Passion, he emphasizes (Mt. 27:45-54):
From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”

Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.” And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely, He was the Son of God!”
So the Statue's missing arm points to Jesus' Passion in yet one more way, unintended by any human artist.  In that light, it's sort of beautiful.

Like the centurion brought to faith by the earthquake, there's at least one other person who has an earthquake to thank: Robert Valderzak, whose deafness was cured by Tuesday's earthquake.

One final earthquake story, which those of you who are friends with me on Google + already know: when I arrived home Tuesday night, I discovered that the Earthquake had knocked exactly one Book off my shelf: the Bible, knocked open to a description of the Apocalypse:


So yes, God does have a sense of humor.  

And yes, I know both pictures are blurry.  Just pretend I took them mid-earthquake.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Heads Up: Fr. Robert Barron's Catholicism Sounds Incredible

Brandon Vogt is the latest in a long series of Catholic bloggers to give unbelievably good reviews to Fr. Robert Barron's upcoming Catholicism series.  Brandon reviewed the book, Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith, but there's also a ten-part DVD series, which will be airing on PBS this fall.

I've not read (or seen) Catholicism yet, but what strikes me is that it isn't getting good reviews... it's getting incredible reviews.   Brandon says things like,
To be blunt, this is simply the best book on Catholicism I've ever read. And I've read a lot of them. Without hyperbole, I can say that this will now be the first book I'll recommend to anyone exploring the Catholic faith.
And Brandon hasn't just read a lot of good books lately: he's written one, a book garnering a lot of positive buzz in its own right.  So he knows a good book when he sees one.  And he's not putting this in the realm of good, but in a category of its own:
Ultimately, Catholicism stands as Barron's magnum opus, the culmination of his life's work so far. Which means it's the best work from one of the world's best theologians, a monumental gift to the Church. RCIA programs across the country should adopt the book as a foundational text, and through Word on Fire's own study program, parishes should use the film series and book to reignite the passion of their flock.


One reviewer described the book and film series as “the most vivid catechism ever created.” And I think he's right. This will go down as the greatest catechetical tool of our generation, the premier, single-volume book on Catholicism.
Brandon concludes, “Whoever you are, and for whoever you know, buy this book. I simply can't give it a higher recommendation.”  Calling that review “good” is like calling hell “warm.”

So what's the book all about, anyhow?
Barron is not just concerned with what's good and true about the Catholic tradition but also what's beautiful. The Catholic faith is not just a matter of the mind and the soul but of the body and the senses. Therefore if we want to fully understand "the Catholic thing", we need to gaze on art, history, culture, music, literature, and architecture: 
“In order to grasp (Catholicism) more fully, we have to read the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, the Confessions of St. Augustine, the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, The Divine Comedy of Dante, Saint John of the Cross' Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Story of a Soul of Therese of Lisieux, among many other texts. But we also have to look and listen.We must consult the Cathedral of Chartres, the Sainte-Chapelle, the Arena Chapel, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Grunewald's Crucifixion in the Isenheim Altarpiece, the soaring melodies of Gregorian chant, the Masses of Mozart, and the motets of Palestrina.”
Like I said, I haven't read or seen Catholicism yet, and so I can't give a review of my own.  But given how incredibly positive every single review I've read has been of both the book and DVD series, I wanted to give a quick  “heads up” for anyone looking for a good great new resource about Catholicism.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How the Eastern Half of the Church Used to View the Pope

Dr. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, former professor of Literature and Theology at the University of San Francisco, has written two volumes of what will eventually be a three-volume meditation on the Gospel of Matthew: Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word (vol I; vol. II). The bits that I've read so far have been amazing. Leiva-Merikakis speaks Greek, French, Latin, and English, and is able to draw out nuance you wouldn't get from just reading the English (for example, what's meant in the Greek by “blessed” in the Beatitudes). He's also a faithful and devout Catholic, and does theology “on his knees,” so to speak.
Icon of Saints Peter and Andrew
given by Patriarch Athenagoras I,
to Pope Paul VI  in 1964

Last week, Fr. Kelly drew our attention to how Leiva-Merikakis treats the passage I discussed yesterday from Matthew 16:13-20. In it, he warns that because “of the deplorable divisions presently existing among Christians, this particular passage is highly charged with polemical possibilites,” and that both Catholics and Protestants tend to overemphasize parts of the passage, with Catholics overemphasizing the role of papacy, to the detriment of the college of bishops (see Matthew 18:18), and Protestants spiritualizing and universalizing the passage so much that it become merely “rhetorical.”

I'd add an additional self-rebuke as well. As Catholics (particularly those of us who engage in apologetics), we can become so obsessed with the implications for the papacy, that we can miss the forest for the trees -- that this is a passage in which Peter, for the first time, realizes that Jesus is the Christ. This point -- that Jesus is Christ -- is an infinitely more important one. Jesus could have chosen anyone to be pope, or could have designed an entirely different structure for the Church. But Peter couldn't have been saved by any other Christ, and nor can we.

Having said that, Leiva-Merikakis then lays out the case that the early Church, including the East, viewed Peter as the Chief Apostle in a way that was more than merely honorary. He writes:
Despite their later quarrels with the See of Rome regarding the modality of the Petrine office and primacy, the Greeks from early on routinely attributed to Peter the title of koryphaios of the apostles, a title that sees in him the “head” (kara), “chief”, or “prince” of the apostolic college.
St. John Chrysostom
Leiva-Merikakis provides two important examples to support this claim. The first is from St. John Chrysostom (349-407 A.D.). St. John Chrysostom is important for a number of reasons.  He's the author of the Divine Liturgy most commonly used within Eastern Orthodoxy, and his importance to the development of Orthodox theology can be hardly overstated: he's their version of our St. Augustine.

In the West, we call him a Doctor of the Church, placing in him with only three-two (soon to be thirty-three) other influential theologians.  In the East, they go beyond that, declaring him one of the Three Holy Hierarchs.  He was bishop of Antioch, where St. Peter himself served as bishop (see Galatians 2).  And he would later become Archbishop of Constantinople, meaning that he's what the Eastern Orthodox would now call the “Ecumenical Patriarch.”  So here's what the Patriarch, St. John Chrysostom,  had to say:
It is a prerogative of the dignity of our city [that is, Antioch] that, from the beginning, it received as master the prince of the apostles. In fact, it was a just thing that this city - which was glorified by the name of "Christians" before the rest of the earth - should receive as shepherd the prince of the apostles. When we received him as master, however, we did not keep him forever but rather yielded him to the royal city of Rome. Therefore, we do not hold the body of Peter, but we hold the faith of Peter as we would Peter himself. As a matter of fact, as long as we hold the faith of Peter, we have Peter himself.
The other example Leiva-Merikakis pointed out which I found fascinating is from the Byzantine Liturgy -- that is, the Liturgy used by all of the Eastern Orthodox churches. In English, Leiva-Merikakis writes:
For instance, in the liturgy of the Feast of the Apostolic College, observed in the Byzantine calendar on June 30, the day after the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, patronal feast of Rome, we hear Peter addressed as “Peter the first-chosen, the chief shepherd,” and also as “the rock of the faith and the holder of the keys of grace”. Thus, the Greek liturgy already provides an expressive exegesis of our passage.
(Leiva-Merikakis actually includes the Greek, which you can find at page 511 here).
Pope Benedict XVI and
 Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
(Successors of Saints Peter and Andrew)

I don't pretend that this information is going to suddenly end the Great Schism, but I do think it's important to remember how the East used to view Peter.  Leiva-Merikakis quite convincingly shows that centuries prior to the Great Schism, the East (including even the future Patriarch of Constantinople) recognized St. Peter as having something more than a mere primacy of honor,” that Peter wasn't simply first amongst equals.”

Rather, they viewed him as “the Prince of the Apostles,” “the Chief Shepherd,” “the Rock of the Faith,” and “the Holder of the Keys of Grace.”   And these weren't some stray opinions, but the faith declared in the Divine Liturgy itself (yet another example of the importance of the Liturgy).

In light of Matthew 16:17-19, the specific titles given leave no question as to the Eastern Church's original belief that the Church was built upon St. Peter, the first-chosen and Prince of the Apostles.  And St. John Chrysostom tells us quite clearly that after serving as Bishop of Antioch, this same Peter moved to the royal city, Rome. That's virtually everything the Catholic Church asserts today.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

“Why Did Jesus Build His Own Church?” and Other Reflections on Matthew 16

This past Sunday's readings were on the papacy. The First Reading was from Isaiah 22:19:23, in which the LORD to Shebna, master of the palace:
"I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station. On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim's shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut when he shuts, no one shall open. I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family."
This passage makes Eliakim something like a Prime Minister in Israel. His authority is granted in the gift of the Keys. In 2 Kings 18:18,when the Assyrians show up to threaten Israel, "They called for the king; and Eliakim son of Hilkiah the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and Joah son of Asaph the recorder went out to them." So Eliakim acts on behalf of the king, and is the chief administrator of the House of David.

The Gospel is from Matthew 16:13-20,
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi He asked His Disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.”

Then He strictly ordered His Disciples to tell no one that He was the Messiah.
There's a lot that can be said on this passage, and a lot which I have said over the course of this blog's lifetime.  For now, though, four basic points will suffice.


1. The Messianic Title of “Son of Man”


Compare the two questions Jesus asks closely.

  • “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” 
  • “But who do you say that I am?”

Jesus' first question isn't “Who do men say that I am?” but “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” Obviously, the crowds would have noticed that Jesus and John the Baptist weren't the same person by this point.  They've seen the two of them together (see, e.g., Matthew 3:13).  And John was quite different than Jesus (Matthew 11:18-19a):
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”’
So the crowd wasn't mistaking Jesus for John.  They were mistaking John for the Son of Man, while Jesus is the actual Son of Man.  This is one of the clearest implications that “Son of Man” is some sort of Messianic title: the people are trying to figure out whether this “Son of Man” had already come, or was yet to come.  Jesus' second question, of course, reveals that He is the Son of Man.


2. The Gift of the Keys

We should play close attention to the gift of the Keys. Given what we've seen from Isaiah, we can see how this power will give Peter to head the Church, and to speak on behalf of the King of the Kingdom of Heaven.  He's God's Eliakim, if you will.  The term “Vicar of Christ” captures this image well, since a vicar is someone standing in for someone else.  Eliakim stood as King Hezekiah's vicar in 2 Kings 18.  Peter did that for Christ in Acts 2, and throughout his ministry; Benedict does that today.


3. The Forms of Church Governance which Jesus Rejected

Abp. Fulton Sheen had a profound insight.  Jesus' first question asks about the consensus of the crowds.  His second question asks about the episcopacy.  But the correct answer only comes from Peter speaking on behalf of the episcopacy, and even then, only because God revealed the answer through Peter.


It's a remarkable thing that Christ begins His declaration that He will build His Church by showing which three systems of Church governance don't work: (i) governance by the flock, (ii) governance by an unheaded episcopacy, and (iii) governance by a single Church leader without Divine protection.

If you look carefully, you'll see each of these three in order: (i) the crowds spilt into various contradictory factions: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets”; (ii) the Twelve, apart from Peter, don't even venture a guess; and (iii) Peter's own answer is possibly only because of God's individual protection of the Chief Apostle: For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you (singular), but My Heavenly Father.”  

The comparisons to non-Catholic Christianity should be obvious.  Protestantism typically follows (i), and splits into innumerable factions as a result.  On even fundamental issues, they can't form a unified response: some say regenerative infant Baptism, others symbolic infant Baptism; still others symbolic adult Baptism.  Orthodoxy tends to follow (ii), and like the other Eleven, largely stays quiet in the face of modern controversies. Without a unified head, it's hard to unify and mobilize the Body, so it too often lies dormant.  Certain other groups, like Mormonism, fall into category (iii).  They have a single head, but because he's not protected by the Holy Spirit, he can't get the answers consistently right.

So Christ has just shown us why Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Mormonism won't work. And He's shown us the necessity of a Divinely-protected papacy, in order to keep Christianity (i) unified, (ii) mobilized, and (iii) orthodox.  But then He does something even more remarkable: He establishes His own Church.


4. Christ Forms His Own Church

In all the controversy over whether Matthew 16:17-19 establishes the papacy (it does, as I've argued here and elsewhere), we can miss a more fundamental point: Christ says, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church...” 

We shouldn't let the controversy over the first half of that statement cause us to ignore the second half: Christ just said He was going to build His own Church. That's huge.

Here, however, I must ask you to set aside preconceived notions about what  “Church” is and isn't.  Certain phrases, like “Church,” “New Covenant,” and “born again,” mean one thing to Jesus, and something quite different to Protestant ministers.  This passage from Matthew 16  is one of only two times Jesus ever says the word “Church” in the Gospels, with the other being Matthew 18:17.  If we want to understand Church the way Jesus does, we should start here, and understand these two passages.  Likewise, of course, if we want to understand what the “New Covenant” is, we should read up on the only time Jesus ever uses that phrase in the Gospels (Luke 22:20), and read John 3:5-8 to understand what Jesus meant by being “born again,” and how it involves “water and the Spirit.”

With that said, ask yourselves: why did Jesus build His own Church?  The simple answer is that this is the only way that the Church would remain pure, and not fall into apostasy (Psalm 127:1):
Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.
For the Church to survive, it must be built by Christ.  Great: the Church is built by Christ.  So the converse seems to be true as well: if the LORD built the Church, it won't be overrun.  The Gates of Hell shall not prevail, as Christ explained.  He doesn't create ecclesial Deism, in which He simply sets Christianity in motion and lets it run wild.  Notice also what He's not doing: He's not simply having believers form whatever bodies they choose. He's not about to entrust the task of creating the New Testament Church to the crowds who can't figure out who the Son of Man is.  He's going to build Her Himself.

Understanding this point is vitally important.  It explains why the Church can't just compromise on the Truth.  We didn't create the Church.  She was created directly by God.  We have no business tinkering with Her Truths, because they're not ours to play around with.

I also think that understanding the basics of why Jesus built the Church, and what that means for the Church, immediately makes the Catholic Church a serious contender when She claims to be the One True Church.  Because we should be able to recognize now that there is such a thing as the One True Church.  Christ didn't build a Church to have it become One amongst many.  And a Church built by any other than the LORD isn't His equal.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Lying Our Way Through the Creed

Elizabeth Erazo, a Protestant well on her way into becoming either Orthodox or (if she can brave it) Catholic, made a great point about Creedal Protestantism:
It’s a curious thing — a lot of well-informed Protestants will talk very much about how historical context is vital to properly understanding the Bible. This is so true, but why don’t we apply it to other things — the Nicene Creed for example? What did the original authors, in 325, as well as those who added to it in 381, mean when they said “one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” or “one baptism for the remission of sins”? We can’t go back and read it through the lens of the Reformation, because it hadn’t happened. [To do] that is sloppy theology & history. We must read it through the lens of the original authors.
I've seen the point expressed before, but rarely so succinctly.  When we say (and pray) the Creed, we're making a declaration of faith before God and our fellow Christians. If we're doing that while holding internal reservations, we're being dishonest. We're saying one thing and meaning another.

For the Creed to mean anything, it has to have an objective meaning.  Let me use an example from contract law.  Imagine that you own a blue barn.  You show a buyer around, and he draws up a contract saying that you'll sell “the blue barn” for $50,000.   Years later, you build another, much smaller blue barn.  You can't say, “now, when I refer to 'the blue barn,' I mean the small one.”  Even if you wish the phrase meant the small blue barn, that's not what it meant to the author of the contract, and it's not what was meant when the contract was formed.  If the contract means anything, it has to mean something outside of your own head.

Likewise, the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed were drawn up by men well before our time.  We can't just re-imagine what we'd like the Creed to mean.  We either believe the faith expressed by the early Church, or we don't.  If we don't, we shouldn't declare that we do, or we're liars.  Or put more positively, if we want to be Creedal Christians, we should strive to learn what the Fathers meant by things like “one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” and “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”

The Fathers aren't quiet on these topics, either.  St. Optatus of Milevis, for example, one of the great forgotten fourth century Fathers, spells out what Baptism is, and what the Catholic Church is: you can find those answers in parts A & C, respectively, here.  That's just one example -- you can find innumerable statements by the Fathers on regenerative Baptism and on the visible Church.

What you'll quickly discover is that either the Roman Catholic Church is right about Baptism and the Church, or the Creeds are wrong.  You can't honestly have it both ways.  And if you would, offer up a few prayers today for Ms. Erazo and her journey home.


P.S. Speaking of journeys home, regular commenter Brent Stubbs is on The Journey Home tonight at 8 Eastern.  Check him out!

Tithing Your Time At Work

I heard a simple but remarkable idea in a homily which Fr. Arne Panula gave a while ago.  In it, he suggested we mentally “tithe” our time at work. The idea is simple: figure out (roughly) what percentage of your income you give back to God, and then mentally block out that percentage of your workday, and set it apart for God.

So, for example, if you give 10% of your income back to God, and work eight hours a day (480 minutes), you should “tithe” 48 minutes. Then, you choose an actual 48-minute block of time -- perhaps the first 48 minutes of the day, or the first 48 minutes when you're back from lunch -- and say,  “God, I'm working these next 48 minutes for you.”

And then do it. Work during that period as if you're working directly for God.  Be charitable to your coworkers, refrain from sloth and gossip, and just generally have God ever-present in this portion of your workday.  Of course, it'd be great if we had this attitude during every moment of the day, but cultivating these virtues in a set block of time is a good starting place.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Why Do Catholics Abstain from Meat on Fridays?

As a society, American Catholics tend to give up meat on Fridays in Lent... and that's it. That's not good. We're called to give up meat or something else on every Friday, not just those during Lent. Here's the relevant part of canon law:
Can. 1249 The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.

Can. 1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.

Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Can. 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.

Can. 1253 The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.
In the US, we're permitted to substitute something else in place of meat.  Unfortunately, we Catholics are terrible about actually doing it, partly because most Catholics are unaware that they're even supposed to be giving anything up.  The bishops in the UK are actually restoring No-Meat Fridays starting next month, and I hope that the US bishops follow suit -- or at least get serious about enforcing the rule which exists now. That seems quite possible: Archbishop Dolan of New York wonders aloud if they're on to something, by restoring some externally-visible sign that we're Catholics.  Making Catholics distinctively, visibly Catholics (through ashes, meatless Fridays, and the like) helps create a Catholic identity, and builds some roots for when times get tough.

But there are a few other reasons for the practice, in addition.  I just read a great reason in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, in which the priest explains the practice like this: "Discipline is necessary.  Drills may be no good in battle, but they form the character."  That's a good way of thinking about it.  St. Paul, in Ephesians 6:12, says:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
If we take St. Paul seriously, then one of the jobs of the Church is to prepare each of us for spiritual warfare against the forces of Hell, as well as to fend off the spiritual temptations of this world.  The Church can't just send us off to fight with good intentions. Spiritual discipline is absolutely necessary.  I don't need to tell you what happens when She totally relaxes that discipline - we've already seen, and it's been a disaster.

But there's a reason that it's important we specifically do No-Meat Fridays, and there's a reason that the Early Church Fathers, like Tertullian and Clement, testify to this practice from the beginning.


What's given up isn't technically "meat" but the Latin "caro," which means "flesh."  This is why fish is allowed: their meat isn't considered "flesh."  So why do we give up flesh on Fridays?  Two reasons.

First, "flesh" is often the term the New Testament writers (particularly St. Paul) use to describe our sinful appetites.  So in Romans 8:13, Paul says, "For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live."  We give up "flesh meat" to symbolize putting to death the deeds of the flesh.

Second, Christ Redeemed us by offering up His Flesh for our salvation on Good Friday.  St. Paul explains in Colossians 1:19-23:
For it pleased the Father that in Him should all fullness dwell, and having made peace through the blood of His Cross, by Him to reconcile all things unto Himself -- by Him, I say, whether they be things on earth or things in heaven.


And you, who were once alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, even now hath He reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy and unblamable and unreprovable in His sight, if ye continue grounded and settled in the faith, and be not moved away from the hope of the Gospel, which ye have heard and which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, am made a minister.
So Christ, by being put to Death in the Flesh, reconciles us to the Father.  So our job is done, right?  Christ bore all the bad stuff, so we're home free?  Not quite.  St. Paul says in the very next breath (Colossians 1:24-25):
I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh, for His body's sake, which is the church, of which I am made a minister according to the dispensation of God, which is given to me for you, to fulfill the Word of God-- even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to His saints.
Just read that passage a couple times, and tell me that St. Paul wasn't a Catholic.  Christ being put to Death in the Flesh reconciles us to God the Father, but the Passion doesn't mean that we're going to free-ride.  Rather, our job is to take up our cross daily, and follow Christ (Luke 9:23).  A Cross is a for killing: Christ is saying that we have to die to ourselves every day.  So it's fitting that we put away the flesh-meat on Friday, the day of week which forever honors Christ's Passion, to signify both our love of the ultimate Sacrifice of the Flesh, and to emulate our Savior by mortifying the flesh for the sake of the Spirit.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Liturgy of St. James on the Eucharist

Yesterday, I talked about how helpful it is to learn from both the Early Church Fathers (the theologians of their day), and the early Liturgies (which reflect what worship would have looked like in the early Church).  Today, I want to look at one particular Liturgy, the Liturgy of Saint James, on one particular topic, the Eucharist.  Read for yourself the sort of prayers offered by the priest and the people, and determine if you would have felt comfortable praying along with some of Our Lord's earliest followers.

I. The Liturgy of St. James

This Liturgy is the oldest Eucharistic service in continual use.  In its present form, it's believed to go back to the Fourth Century, and some variation of the Liturgy likely dates back much earlier, perhaps as early as 60 A.D. (making it older than much of the New Testament).  It's classically ascribed to St. James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, and has special prayers for the Church at Jerusalem.  The (Protestant) editors of Ante-Nicene Fathers removed those portions of the Liturgy which appear to be of later origin, and what we have here is probably pretty close to what a Jerusalem Christian would be praying on an ordinary Sunday in the early 300s.

It's an Eastern Liturgy, meaning it was (and is) in Greek, rather than Latin.  As with a modern Mass or Divine Liturgy, the Liturgy of St. James is divided in half.  The first half (the “Liturgy of the Catechumens” or “the Liturgy of the Word”) contains prayers, readings from Scripture, and the homily.  After this, the deacon says:
Let none remain of the catechumens, none of the unbaptized, none of those who are unable to join with us in prayer.
Once the non-baptized have left, the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins.  I want to point out five parts of this half of the Liturgy of St. James, because I think it shows rather clearly what the early Church believed and proclaimed about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

(1) The Cherubic Hymn

One of the first prayers prayed is the Cherubic Hymn, which begins with a nod towards Habakkuk 2:20:
Let all mortal flesh be silent, and stand with fear and trembling, and meditate nothing earthly within itself:— 
For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed, and to be given for food to the faithful; and the bands of angels go before Him with every power and dominion, the many-eyed cherubim, and the six-winged seraphim, covering their faces, and crying aloud the hymn, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
It's an intense prayer, and was adapted into English as a beautiful hymn in the 19th century by Gerard Moultrie.  You can hear a good version of the hymn below (starting at 0:41):


In addition to being intense, it's strikingly Eucharistic.  They're bringing forward the bread and wine, which are to become the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, praying, “For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed, and to be given for food to the faithful.

The Protestant editor's footnote here attempts to dismiss the Eucharistic connotations, saying:
4101 [Here is the Great Entrance, or bringing-in of the unconsecrated elements. It has a symbolical meaning (Heb. i. 6) now forgotten; and here, instead of the glorified Christ, no doubt the superstitious do adore bread and wine in ignorance.]
The footnote suggests that it's just some mistake: that maybe the Liturgy didn't intend to equate the bread and wine with the Body and Blood of Christ, and that it was just ignorant confusion on the part of the “superstitious” to understand things this way.  Read on, and see if that's plausible.

(2) The Consecration

After the Cherbuic hymn come a number of Eucharistic prayers, followed by the consecration itself, in which the priest takes the bread into his hands, and says:
Having taken the bread in His holy and pure and blameless and immortal hands, lifting up His eyes to heaven, and showing it to Thee, His God and Father, He gave thanks, and hallowed, and brake, and gave it to us, His disciples and apostles, saying:— 
Take, eat: this is My Body, broken for you, and given for remission of sins.
The reference to “us, His disciples and apostles,” is one reason why people believe that at least this part of the Liturgy actually was designed by St. James, as far back as about 60.  It's hard to imagine someone in, say, 250 A.D., writing these words.  Likewise, it's hard to imagine the Church in 250 accepting a Liturgy written by a contemporary who pretends that he was at the Last Supper, and was an Apostle.

After this, the priest takes the chalice, and says:
In like manner, after supper, He took the cup, and having mixed wine and water, lifting up His eyes to heaven, and presenting it to Thee, His God and Father, He gave thanks, and hollowed and blessed it, and filled it with the Holy Spirit, and gave it to us His disciples, saying, 
Drink ye all of it; this is My Blood of the New Testament shed for you and many, and distributed for the remission of sins.
It's almost verbatim as what is prayed at every Mass or Divine Liturgy in every part of the world today.

(3) The Epiclesis (Prayer for the Holy Spirit)

If all of this wasn't Eucharistic enough, there's more.  The priest bows his head and prays:
The sovereign and quickening Spirit, that sits upon the throne with Thee, our God and Father, and with Thy only-begotten Son, reigning with Thee; the [consubstantial and] co-eternal; that spoke in the law and in the prophets, and in Thy New Testament; that descended in the form of a dove on our Lord Jesus Christ at the river Jordan, and abode on Him; that descended on Thy apostles in the form of tongues of fire in the upper room of the holy and glorious Zion on the day of Pentecost: this Thine all-Holy Spirit, send down, O Lord, upon us, and upon these offered holy Gifts;
Here he raises his head, and says aloud:
That coming, by His holy and good and glorious appearing, He may sanctify this Bread, and make it the Holy Body of Thy Christ.
The people say “Amen,” and the priest continues...
And this Cup the precious Blood of Thy Christ.
And the people say “Amen” again. So the priest just asked the Father to send the Holy Spirit to sanctify the bread and wine and turn them into  the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

The major difference between Eastern and Western Liturgies here is ordering: the East has the consecration first, while the West has the epiclesis before the consecration.  This leads to some confusion over the precise moment when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, but both East and West agree that at a minimum, once the epiclesis and consecration are completed, it's the Body and Blood of Christ we're encountering.

(4) Prayer for Sanctification

I'm not sure what this prayer is called, but this is one of the prayers for sanctification that the priest prays, so that he and the people can receive the Sacrament (Mystery) from the altar worthily:
To Thee, O Lord, we Thy servants have bowed our heads before Thy holy altar, waiting for the rich mercies that are from Thee. Send forth upon us, O Lord, Thy plenteous grace and Thy blessing; and sanctify our souls, bodies, and spirits, that we may become worthy communicants and partakers of Thy holy Mysteries, to the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting: For adorable and glorified art Thou, our God, and Thy only-begotten Son, and Thy all-holy Spirit, now and ever.
It's just one more reminder that the early Christians had altars, treated the Eucharist as a Sacrifice, and as a Sacrament.

(5) Final Prayers before Communion

After a number of other prayers, the priest breaks the Bread, dipping it into the Chalice, and declaring:
The union of the all-holy Body and precious Blood of our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
After a few more prayers, the priest acknowledges his own unworthiness to God, before receiving the Eucharist:
O Lord our God, the heavenly Bread, the life of the universe, I have sinned against Heaven, and before Thee, and am not worthy to partake of Thy pure Mysteries; but as a merciful God, make me worthy by Thy grace, without condemnation to partake of Thy holy Body and precious Blood, for the remission of sins, and life everlasting.
At this point, the priest consumes the Eucharist, and proceeds to distribute it amongst the deacons, and then the congregation.

III. Conclusion

As you can see, the early Church had no qualms asking the Father to send the Holy Spirit to turn the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and with equating the Eucharist with “the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God.” The worship centered around an altar, which was used to offer Christ to His Father as a memorial Sacrifice, and to distribute Him in Communion as our spiritual Food.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Listening to the Early Church Fathers AND the Liturgy

Catholic apologists rightly rely quite heavily upon the writings of the Early Church Fathers.  There's good reason for it:
  • The Early Church Fathers are virtually the only way we know what Christianity is.  How do we know which Books belong in the Bible?  How do we know who wrote the Gospels? How do we know that Trinitarian Christianity is right and, say, Gnosticism is wrong?  These guys.  Without them, there would be virtually no way of knowing whether modern Christianity was the same as the faith founded by Christ.  If you ignore the Fathers, you're left defending the faith on incredibly shaky ground: like “this is the Bible I've always used,” or “I just know.”

  • These were the Best of the Early Church.  There's a reason that these specific Fathers are known to use today.  Their writings were circulated by the very same people who circulated the Letters of St. Paul, and for the same reason -- these were accurate summaries of the Christian faith, by men who were known and trusted.

  • The Church Fathers were holy.  Many of them died as martyrs: folks like Ignatius and Justin.  Most of them wrote beautiful theological treatises which put to shame most of the modern output. All of them exhibited a love for Christ.  Certainly, there were bad seeds in the early Church, but my point is that they aren't simply old, they're heroes of the faith.

  • They had resources we don't have.  By this, I mean three things.  First, many of them spoke Biblical Hebrew or Greek as their native tongue, and many more would have been familiar with some of the customs Scripture refers to off-handedly.  Second, there are some documents referred to in the Patristic writings which we don't have today.  So they likely had certain written resources we don't.  And finally, a number of them either saw Christ, or learned directly from His Apostles.  A Bible study is great.  Twenty years of sitting at the feet of the Apostle John, asking him questions about Jesus?  That's better.  We can't do that today, but we can read the writings of the folks who did.

  • They come with Christ's protection.  While a Church Father may err on occasion, to say that all of the Church Fathers went wrong is to say that the Church founded by Christ fizzled out right away.  Since that's inconsistent with His own promises (in places like Mt. 28:20, John 14:16, John 16:13, etc.)
But there is one shortcoming when it comes to the Church Fathers.  Sometimes, you'll read something and wonder, “Did the whole early Church believe that?  Or is this Father just expressing some quirky opinion?”  And that's where we have another amazingly helpful resource: early Church Liturgies.

While the Patristic writings are a collection of the early Church's finest theologians, the early Liturgies give us a unique view into the prayer life of the early Church.  It's what ordinary Christians prayed every time they went to Church.  As such, they're even more foolproof.  As the Lutheran Dr. Jack Kilcrease has noted, we know from history that the Liturgy helped save Christianity from heresy:
A good example of this is during the Arian controversy. In spite of the fact that Arius and some other Bishops were teaching the faith incorrectly, a great many of the laity were still saved by the fact that the liturgy contained true expositions of the faith. Liturgy saves us from unskilled or heretical pastors and teachers. It promotes and preserves the faith.
You can imagine a similar situation today, in which a priest refuses to call God by masculine pronouns, yet the people still pray the “Our Father.”  The people are taught directly by the Liturgy, and proclaim their faith directly in the same way.

Let me mention up front the one weakness in using the Liturgy in this way.  Liturgies aren't meant to be historical documents. They're intended to be public acts of worship, and so the Church occasionally builds upon them - adding a few words here, changing the order of the prayers there.

Religiously, this makes perfect sense.  After the Council of Nicea, the word “consubstantial” (meaning of one Being) was apparently added to the Liturgy of St. James (which we'll look at tomorrow) to more clearly express the Church's belief in the Trinity.

But historically, this can be frustrating. Just because we have a ninth-century copy of an ancient Liturgy, that doesn't mean we can say with 100% confidence which parts date back to the eighth century, much less the first. Of course, when we do figure out which words or prayers were added and why, it helps to tell a fuller story of the Church's history.

Having a familiarity with the early Liturgies can seem a little daunting at first, but they're intensely beautiful.  And the Liturgies speak volumes about the earliest forms of Christianity.

First, the simple fact that there were Liturgies means that the early Church didn't look like the modern Independent Baptists, for example.  And when you encounter these Liturgies, you'll discover that they're rich in Eucharistic theology, talking about the Mysteries (Sacraments), about the Body and Blood of Christ on the altar, and about how this was a form of Sacrifice, of perpetually offering the Son to the Father.

Tomorrow, I'll start with the earliest Liturgy still in use today, the Liturgy of St. James.  I think you'll find it enriching, particularly in how clearly and boldly it proclaimed (and still proclaims) a belief that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ upon the altar.

UPDATE: The post on the Eucharist in the Liturgy of St. James is  here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why Are Young Believers More Religiously-Conservative?

Here's a good op-ed from USA Today by Anna Williams, talking about how young Catholics are more traditional than the last two generations. The author then notes that this is part of a broader patter: Protestants, Jews, and Muslims are also experiencing a generation of young and religiously-conservative believers compared with both our parents' and grandparents' generation. Williams then suggests a reason for this phenomenon:
As a member of this strange millennial cohort, I have wondered this myself. I think the answer comes down to this: 1960s-style liberation — from moral codes, family obligations, religious commitments — has betrayed us. 
Sometime in the past century, a new creed emerged, saying everyone should make his own creed. This tolerant, open-minded ethos seemed to promise freedom: safe sex with many partners, drugs and alcohol galore and quick, no-fault divorce. So our Baby Boomer parents partied hard, yet in so many cases left us only the hangover: heartbreak, addiction and broken homes, plus rising rates of teenage depression and suicide. 
That seems like a very good place to start the conversation.  In our society, we're seeing two basic camps emerge.  One camp thinks that if we just had more excesses or greater indulgences, we'd be happier: more money, more fame, more power, more women, more drugs, fewer rules, and so on.  The other camp has come to realize that all the money, fame, power, women, drugs, and lawlessness in the world won't satisfy our souls.

Within Catholic circles, I often hear young orthodox Catholics of being against the Spirit of Vatican II. But really, we're for Vatican II (well, most of us), but against the Spirit of the Sexual Revolution. I think Williams nails the cause.  That said, of course, there are many other factors.  To name two, specific to a Catholic context:

  • God has richly blessed us with the last two popes, Benedict and John Paul II.  Pope John Paul II seemed to "get" young people in a way that the "trying to hard to be hip" liberals didn't.  He didn't patronize us, or treat us like we had to have everything ( the Liturgy, the homily, etc.) dumbed down to understand it.  He challenged us, and countless rose to the occasion. The globe-trotting pope was rightly called a "rock star pope," and his funeral was a global media event, with countless viewers (Catholic and non-Catholic alike) fixated on the screen.  While that's not always healthy, JPII bore it all humbly, and used his influence to turn people towards God and neighbor.  Benedict has carried on JPII's legacy in a quieter, almost self-effacing way.
  • The reform of the seminaries.  Seminaries in the United States were in terrible condition at the start of John Paul II's pontificate. JPII oversaw a largely-successful reform of the seminaries.  The result is that the youngest generation of priests are more orthodox than the two generations prior.  Young and charismatic orthodox priests are going to inspire young people in a way that older liberal priests, embittered at their waning influence, simply won't.  And these younger priests are also preaching the Gospel.  At heart, this isn't just about personality.  If one priest tells you a story, and one priest proclaims the Gospel of Christ, the latter's word will have more effect, precisely because he's not acting on his own.
Now, even with the addition of these two factors, that's still not a full picture. But hopefully, this helps paint some of the broad contours of the new Springtime in the American Church.

The Irony of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's Holier-Than-Thou Hit Piece on Rick Perry

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has written one of her perennial disingenuous articles manipulating religion for political gain (she's earlier claimed that Obama is more Catholic than the pope, since Obama supports abortion -- no, really). This time, she's bashing Rick Perry for not being sufficiently Christian on the pages of The Atlantic.

My interest isn't in attacking or defending Rick Perry.  Rather, I just want to point out how utterly hypocritical and self-serving this piece (and scores more like it) are.  After all, this is the same Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has rode the coattails of her uncle,  President John F. Kennedy, who she says "urged that religion be private, removed from politics, because he feared that making faith an arena for public contention would lead American politics into ill-disguised religious warfare, with candidates tempted to use faith to manipulate voters and demean their opponents."  So when it suits her, she wants religion to have no place in politics (for example, in the area of abortion). But when it doesn't suit her, she wants "to use faith to manipulate voters and demean their opponents."

In doing so, she manages to badly bungle what Scripture actually says. The Atlantic article is a masterpiece of unintended ironies.  For example, she begins by attacking Rick Perry for being proud of his Christianity:
Most political candidates also profess their belief in God. At the same time, they rarely make a big deal of their devotion. They've probably read Matthew 6:1, which warns, "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them."
Obviously, nothing in Matthew 6:1 suggests that Christians need to hide their Christianity, and just as obviously, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is in no position to accuse others of exploiting their faith for political gain.  After all, that's the whole point of this piece.  Shortly after this, she says:
I had read [The Purpose Driven Life], and coming from a different Christian tradition, I was struck by how much it focused on getting you to feel good about yourself rather than caring about your neighbor, which Christ had said was the greatest commandment.
I was dumbstruck by this one.  This is a pretty basic error.  From Matthew 22:34-40:
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Yes, loving your neighbor (which is a bit more than "caring about your neighbor," I suspect) is critical to living out the Gospel.  But it's not the greatest commandment, precisely because Christ didn't come to create a Welfare State, but the Kingdom of God.  We love our neighbors because we love God, and His Image and Likeness is imprinted upon every face we see.

To confuse these is indicative of a misunderstanding of the very purpose of the Gospel.  Christ is the hub.  When we draw closer to Him, we come closer to the other spokes -- right relationship with God leads to right relationship with everyone else.

Theology aside, how about basic journalism?  We've got Ms. Kennedy Townsend setting herself up as the authority over who can call themselves Christian, and yet she's getting basic details wrong.  Do they not fact-check at The Atlantic?  I can't help but imagine that Mark Twain, a former columnist for The Atlantic himself, would be ashamed at how bad the magazine has become.

At bottom, if Kennedy Townsend really believed that the government should be imposing Christian morality, she'd have a much harder time defending her record as a hardcore pro-choicer during her time as Lt. Governor of Maryland. So I don't even view this article as stupid: I view it as dishonest.

I know that there's a broader legitimate debate to be had amongst Christians over what role the government should have, both in promoting morality and in providing for the "least of these" (Mt. 25:45).  Scripture leaves enough ambiguity that well-meaning Christians have come out on different sides of this, and many of these issues come down the prudential judgment of the believer and voter.  We're called to care for the poor: how we do it is left up to us.

By all means, we should continue to have that debate.  But this article, and scores more like it, do nothing to further that.  Rather, they're just a way for liberals like Kennedy Townsend to hijack Christianity in a none-too-subtle attempt to score political points against Republican political candidates.  Regardless of your view on the appropriate role of government in the protection of the common good, we should be united against these wolves in sheep's clothing.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Is the "Rock" Peter, or His Faith?

HocCogitat asked, in response to Part V of my series on the role of St .Peter in Scripture:
But even Augustine holds that Christ was referring to Peter's confession as the rock, not his person. And this is obviously the only reasonable interpretation because Christ calls Peter Satan later in the same chapter. Obviously, what he calls him refers to something he has done and not something he is. Agreed?
I disagree. The case is quite clear that Simon fundamentally became Peter in a radical, unique, and irreversible way.  This transformation was because of his faith, but was unique to Peter individually.

I. Turning Simon into Peter

It is true that there is a very narrow sense in which it’s accurate to say that Simon is Peter, the Rock, because of his faith. In the same way, we might say (for example) that Obama is president because of his charisma. But when we say this, we’re giving a reason for why a certain individual was selected.

So we need to be careful with what this implies, and what it doesn't. We’re not saying that (a) that anyone with charisma automatically becomes co-president, or that (b) Obama ceases to be president anytime he’s not charming.

Likewise, Simon Peter was individually selected because of his faith. But no, that doesn’t mean that (a) anyone with faith becomes Peter, or that (b) Peter ceases to be Peter when his faith falters. This is an authentic transformative change. It’s a name he carries with him for the rest of his life (unlike “Satan,” which referred to his conduct in a specific instance, and a name Jesus never calls him again).

For example, in Galatians 2, when Paul rebukes Peter's behavior, he still calls him Cephas (the Greek transliteration of Kephas, the Aramaic word for Rock). So Peter isn’t a title that only belongs to Simon when he's on his best behavior.  It's his name, just as Abram forever becomes Abraham (because of his faith), and Jacob became Israel (same reason).


Nor is it a title that anyone else ever receives. In John 11:27, St. Martha says to Jesus: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” That’s almost verbatim what Peter confessed in Matthew 16:16. Yet Jesus doesn’t change Martha’s name to Rock, doesn’t bestow the Keys upon her, doesn’t give her the power to bind and loosen, doesn’t promise to build the Church upon her, etc.  If Protestants were right, that Jesus is just building His Church upon “faith like Peter's” (which isn't what He says He's doing), then we'd expect Him to similarly bless Martha.  That doesn't happen.

II. Simon:Peter :: Jesus:Christ

I'm glad that HocCogitat wants to look at the context of Matthew 16, but there's something he's missing.  Here's a bit of the context, from Mt. 16:16-18:
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
What should jump out (the added emphasis helps) is that Simon identifies which Jesus is (the Christ, the Son of the Living God), and Jesus responds by identifying who Simon is (Peter, the Rock, who He'll build His Church upon).

To say that Jesus calling Simon “Rock,” “refers to something he has done and not something he is” would likewise suggest that “the Christ” refers to something Jesus will do, rather than something He Is. But Jesus is the Christ, as Peter tells us above (and others, like St. John, confirm: see John 20:31).  Christ isn't just a role Jesus plays: it's a part of His Person.  Likewise, Peter isn't just a role Simon plays.  Simon is Peter.  Jesus is Christ.

III. A Rock, and a Stumbling Stone

The verse HocCogitat refers to, Matthew 16:23, actually suggests the opposite conclusion he draws. Jesus says, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling stone to Me.” As Msgr. Ronald Knox pointed out in Belief of Catholics, calling Peter a stumbling stone plays upon his new name, “Rock.”

It's a nod towards the fact that Peter is, at once, a rock upon which Jesus will build the Church, and a scandalon, a rock which gets in the way. The papacy has always possessed both of these characteristics, as can be expected of an office which is of Divine origin and oversight, but occupied by sinful man. So Peter's not conditionally Rock. He's always Rock. Sometimes that's great, sometimes it's a scandal; often, it's both at once.

IV. Misusing St. Augustine 

Finally, I should note two things.  First, in various writings, St. Augustine equated the Rock with Peter (individually), with Peter's faith, and with Christ.  So you can proof-text Augustine for anything on this point. At a minimum, Augustine didn't find Peter's confession “obviously the only reasonable interpretation,” since he suggested two alternative interpretations.

Second and more importantly, there's no question that Augustine still believed that Christ founded the papacy with Peter as the first pope, and that this papacy continued in Rome. So to take his exegesis of Mt. 16 in this way isn’t faithful to his own views on the papacy.  That's poor Patristics.  I know it's a popular Protestant meme, but I think it's  a misleading one.

Conclusion

I think that the case from Scripture is quite clear: Jesus chooses one man, Simon, to become the earthly leader of His flock.  Jesus chooses him because of his faith, but this blessing stays with him both when his faith is strong and when it is weak.  Others (like Martha) come to share the faith of Peter, but in doing so, they don't become the Rock upon which Jesus will build His Church.


Happy Feast of the Assumption, by the way!