Swimming the Tiber 13: The Sacraments: Baptism (Part One)

There are, generally speaking, two primary points of contention regarding baptism: (1) when to do it, and (2) what it’s for. That may sound like just about everything, but at least I don’t have to argue that we should do it–that much should be obvious (Matthew 28:19-20).

I grew up in the Baptist tradition, which means that my answers to the above issues were (1) upon or beyond the age of accountability (or age of reason), usually five to eight years old (depending on the child), and when the person expressed faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and (2) as a statement to the church community that a person had accepted the aforementioned faith.

As a Catholic, however, the answers are (1) as soon as possible, and (2) for the forgiveness of sins.

These are not close together at all, as you can see. So why the change? Well, let’s look at these one at a time–but just to mess with you, I’m going to tackle them in reverse.

Let’s first examine the Scriptures in favor of baptism as a sign of our faith, but nothing more.

And [he] said to them, “Having been conveyed unto quite the whole cosmos, herald the good news to all creation.1 The [one] having believed and having been baptized will be saved, but the [one] disbelieving will be condemned.”

– Mark 16:15-16 (my translation)

But Crispus, the synagogue-head, believed in the lord with his whole house, and many of the Corinthians, hearing, were believing and were being baptized.

– Acts 18:8 (my translation)

For Christ did not dispatch me to baptize but to evangelize, not in cleverness of reckoning, in order that the cross of Christ may not be emptied. For the reckoning, the [one] of the cross, is folly to the [ones] being destroyed, but to us, the [ones] being saved, [it] is the power of God.

– 1 Corinthians 1:17-18 (my translation)

1 Or every creature.

In the first passage, we see that believing is the real crux of the matter (no pun intended). If you believe (and get baptized), you will be saved, but disbelieving is the path to condemnation; so, it seems, the believing is the part that saves, not the baptizing. In the second place, we don’t even see mention of Crispus being baptized, so it must not have been important. And in the third passage, we read St. Paul telling us that he came to preach, not baptize, so of course, preaching is more important.

There are also other passages that do not suggest anything special about baptism, treating it almost as an afterthought–for example Acts 2:41; 8:35-38; 16:14-15, 31-34. At most, these passages suggest that baptism is a sort of statement, a declaration of intent, but nothing spiritually efficacious. So baptism is, in essence, a sign of faith. But is that the whole story? Is it only a sign of faith, or does it actually accomplish something as well?

Before we move on to other passages, let me first address the objections raised here. For the first passage, it seems that belief saves, and not baptism–but we already know this isn’t the whole story, of course, and it’s not quite so simple with baptism, either. As we shall see shortly, baptism is efficacious, and a lack of mention here is not the same thing as denying power to baptism altogether. For the second, the tense of the latter clause is important–we see that many Corinthians were believing and being baptized, so Crispus (and his whole house) is included in this group, which is juxtaposed with the response of the Jews in verse 6 of that chapter (they opposed Paul and reviled him).

The passage from 1 Corinthians is quoted often by opponents of baptism as a real sacrament with power to accomplish things in our lives. “If baptism is so important,” people say, “why did Paul say preaching was better?” Well, for one thing, St. Paul didn’t say that preaching was better, only that he came to Corinth to evangelize, not to baptize. The context here is that he is angry that the Corinthians have divided themselves and call themselves after Paul, after Cephas (Peter), after Apollos, after Christ, but there is only one Christ (a topic to which St. Paul returns in his letter to the Ephesians, as we shall see next week). Evangelism and baptism are not opposed, of course, but steps in a process; first, you are evangelized and converted by the power of the cross (not by eloquence or sophistry), then you are baptized, then you proceed in a lifelong pursuit of Christ through discipleship and faith. As St. Paul wrote later in this same letter (and as we saw a couple of weeks ago), “each [man] has his own grace from God, the [one] thus, the other thus.” Paul’s gift, and his task, was to evangelize; it fell to others to baptize. Or, as Jesus said, “One sows and another reaps” (John 4:37, NRSV).

Now, let’s look at a few more passages.

“I, on the one hand, baptize you in water unto repentance, but the [one] coming after1 me is stronger than me, whose sandals [I] am not competent to carry;2 [he] himself will baptize you in a holy spirit and [in/with] fire; whose winnowing-shovel in his hand both purges thoroughly his threshing-floor and gathers his grain into the storehouse, but the chaff-heap will burn down in unquenchable fire.”

Then Jesus comes near from Galilee upon the Jordan to John in order to be baptized by him. But John was hindering him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?” And having answered, Jesus said to him, “Let [it] go just now, for thus [it] is conspicuously fitting3 for us to fill all justice.” Then he let him go. And Jesus, having been baptized, went straight up from the water; and behold, the skies opened {to him}some manuscripts omit this word, and [he] saw {the} spirit of God descending just as a dove {and} comingsome manuscripts: coming; others omit upon him; and behold, [there was] a sound out of the skies saying, “This [man] is my son, the beloved [one], in whom [I] am well-pleased.”

– Matthew 3:11-17 (my translation)

And being gathered, [he] gave a command to them not to separate from Jerusalem, but to await the promise of the father, which [you] heard from me, that John, on the one hand, baptized with water, but you will be baptized in a holy spirit after not many of these days.

– Acts 1:4-5 (my translation)

But having heard, [they] were stabbed [in] the heart and they said to Peter and the remaining apostles, “What should [we] do, men, brothers?” And Peter to them, “Change your minds(repent),” {[he] said}, “and be baptized, each of you, upon the name of Jesus Christ unto the acquittal of your errors and [you] will receive the gift of the holy spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all the [ones] up to a faraway [place], how many soever the lord God called of us.” And with more, other arguments [he] testified and [he] was calling to them, saying, “Be saved from this crooked generation.” The [ones], therefore, having accepted his argument were baptized and about three thousand lives were added in that day. And [they] were adhering firmly4 to the teaching of the apostles and to the communion, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.

– Acts 2:37-42 (my translation)

With Peter still speaking these sayings, the spirit, the holy [one], fell upon all the [ones] hearing the argument. And the faithful [ones] out of the circumcision, as many as gathered with Peter, changed,5 that also upon the nations the gift of the holy spirit has been poured out; for [they] were hearing them speaking with tongues and magnifying God. Then Peter answered, “Does anyone have power to withhold the water from baptizing these [men], whosoever received the spirit, the holy [one], just as also we [did]?” And [he] ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then [they] asked him to stay for some days.

– Acts 10:44-48 (my translation)

Note: for comparison, see also Mark 1:4-11; Luke 3:16-22; John 1:26-34; and read Acts 11:15-18 for important context on the passage from chapter 10 above. Acts 22:16 mentions again the power of baptism.

1 The word here (ὀπίσω) literally means “behind” or “backwards”; this is an idiom in Greek for the future, which is unknown and unseen (therefore behind us), as opposed to the past, which is seen (and therefore ahead). We preserve this in English when we say that the future comes “after” us, even though we frequently think of ourselves marching forward into the future.
2 There may be several plays on words here. First, the verb “to carry” (βαστάσαι, from βαστάζω) resembles the verb “to baptize” (βαπτίζω), and we will see John shortly baptizing Jesus under protest that he is unworthy to do so. This verb also literally means to lift up or raise, which metaphorically means to exalt or glorify, which is one of the purposes of John’s ministry. A synonymous verb (ὑψόω) is also used by the Apostle John in John 3:14 to connect with Jesus’ crucifixion.
3 This is a periphrastic form. (See my note 6 on periphrastic forms from a couple of weeks ago.) Here, Jesus emphasizes the nature of the deed, rather than the effect (it is seemly, rather than it seems to so-and-so).
4 This is another periphrastic form. Here, the sense is focused on the converts’ state of mind, rather than the specific action (though of course the action is important, even more important is its reflection of who they became as a result of their conversion).
5 This is often translated as a passive, e.g., “They were astounded,” or, “They were amazed,” but the word is technically active. It literally means to displace, but in this case, perhaps it means something like changed [their minds]. (This should not be confused with the word translated “change your minds” in the above passage, which is frequently translated “repent”; the words are not related, but the theological sense–i.e., conversion to the truth–may be.)

There’s a lot to unravel here, but some of it is self-explanatory. I’ll try to be brief.

In the first passage, we hear John declare the purpose of baptism: repentance. Mark calls it a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (NRSV). This is the effect of baptism. But we immediately see Jesus baptized by John; surely he had no sins that needed to be forgiven. But Matthew tells us why Jesus’ baptism by John is different, but still appropriate: in the first place, it was appropriate that Jesus fulfill the law and do as he taught us to do (Matthew 5:17). Also, Jesus’ sins are not forgiven by baptism, because he has committed no sins to forgive, and he does not possess the stain of original sin, but the act does spark off his earthly ministry, complete with a theophany (the revelation of God to the people, by God’s declaration of his Son’s identity). This is the effect for Jesus, and the effect for us is similar: it cleanses us of original sin and of all our sinful deeds prior to baptism, so that, washed clean by the blood of Christ, God can declare of us a sonship. (See Romans 8:12-17; Galatians 3:25-29; 4:4-7.)

The second passage is an echo of John’s teaching in each of the Gospels: after the baptism with water comes a baptism with the Holy Spirit, a greater baptism, sent by Christ. At first glance, this sounds like an abandonment of the baptism by water in favor of the baptism by the Holy Spirit, but consider the third passage: no sooner had the apostles been baptized by the Holy Spirit than they preached to the gathered crowd and, upon their conversion, Peter and the apostles baptized them with water, according to the command of Christ (see Matthew 28 again).

In the fourth passage, the revelation of the Gospel to the Gentiles converts their hearts, and God bestows his Holy Spirit upon them–and immediately, Peter orders that they be baptized with water. Is this merely a formality? If they have the Holy Spirit already, what need have they of this other baptism? But this reinforces the truth: baptism is an essential part of the process, by which we are granted graces by God and gain entrance into Christ’s Body, the Church, and by which our sins are forgiven. Acts 22:16 reminds us of this important step; for who can deny that Saul, on the road to Emmaus by Christ himself, and again in Damascus by Ananias, was ordained to go unto the world as an apostle? But still he needed to be baptized, to be washed of his sins, before that ministry could begin in earnest.

In case you remain unconvinced even now, consider also the cleansing, healing, and saving power of being washed with water. In Genesis, we read of Noah and the great flood, washing away all the sins of the world–but as merely a type of baptism, imperfectly cleansing the world, for immediately Ham sins against his father and the cycle starts all over again. But 1 Peter 3:18-22, in some of the strongest support for baptism as a saving sacrament in all of Scripture, tells us that the great flood prefigured baptism, because in the flood, the sinful were washed away and eight people were saved for God’s kingdom.

Later, in Exodus, we read of the people of Israel fleeing Pharaoh’s armies through the Red Sea. Again, through water, the people were saved from evil. 1 Corinthians 10 reminds us that the people passed through the sea, were baptized into Moses, and were saved from Egypt–but only for a time, for soon they began to fall prey to idolatry. Again, we see the same symbols: water cleanses, but only for a time.

In 2 Kings 5, we come to the story of a man named Naaman, who had leprosy. By the command of Elisha, he washed in the Jordan seven times (the same Jordan where John the Baptist preached and baptized) and was cleansed of his leprosy. And Naaman believed, and worshiped God, but he, too, still had his shortcomings (fearing the wrath of his master for not worshiping in the house of Rimmon, for example).

Jesus himself gives us symbols of baptism. We see in John 9:1-7 that Jesus healed a man born blind, in no small part, by having him wash his eyes. The man does not know all the details, but he has been cleansed. (In verses 35-39, Jesus finds him again and tells him more, and he believes.) Later, “before the festival of the Passover,” Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Baptism is not the only message in this moment (John 13:1-11), but it should not be forgotten, especially in verse 8: “Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me'” (NRSV).

Consider, finally, the baptism with fire. Jesus spoke of undergoing this baptism himself (Mark 10:38-39; Luke 12:50), of the pain and suffering he would endure. This is the “baptism into death,” to which we are joined in our own baptism, as St. Paul explains in Romans 6:3-4. This wraps baptism up in the crucifixion and the resurrection, laying us down to sleep in death, raising us up in newness of life. In this, baptism accomplishes what its analogue accomplished; it is but one step by which we fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (see Colossians 1:24). Baptism puts to death the old self, crucified with Christ, and brings us forth anew, that we may live for God in Christ Jesus. In this way, too, by baptism we clothe ourselves with Christ himself (see again Galatians 3:27-29).

Can we really doubt that baptism is efficacious to forgive sins? And not just any sin, but the “old self,” the fallen nature–original sin. (You may recall that I talked about that topic in some detail last week.) It is by baptism that we put to death our original sin, our slavery unto death, and enter into a new life in Christ Jesus. This is the purpose and effect of baptism, not merely a declaration of our changed hearts, but the very method of marking our souls with an indelible mark, a mark which can never be removed.

This post grows long indeed, and I still have a great deal to cover about when baptism ought to occur. Look forward to that discussion next week!

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Swimming the Tiber 12: That Death May Die

My original plan for this series had me moving directly into a discussion of the sacraments. I assumed everyone would be on the same page as me by this point, but it occurred to me more recently that views on original sin are inconsistent. Personally, my view did not change between the first time I learned of the topic, when I was Protestant, and now; thus, as a chronicle of my own journey, this series did not need a post dealing directly with the question of original sin.

But, I decided, as an examination of Catholic theology in general, a short post addressing original sin would be a good idea.

The doctrine of original sin, however you hold to it, describes the state of humanity as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. As our first ancestors, the sin of Adam and Eve has an effect on our entire species; the full nature of that effect is where disagreement lies. Some undoubtedly insist that original sin is nothing at all, that we bear no effect from that first disobedience–such a view flies in the face of Romans 5:12-21. Some conflate original sin with personal sin (thinking, perhaps, to link it to Romans 3:23). I am fairly certain that neither of these views is correct; Scripture is quite clear about the immediate and interminable effect of our ancestral sin.

But perhaps you don’t recognize the term at all. Perhaps you know it by another name: our “fallen nature,” for example. Whatever the term, though, the theology is clear: because of the Fall in the garden, we are now separated from God and we engage in personal sin.

There are still some conflicting views on how this works, though. In at least some Eastern Orthodox traditions, for example, “original sin” is basically our state of mortality; because of Adam’s sin, we (his descendants) inherit death. This is a reading focused on verses 14 and 17 of Romans chapter 5, because “death ruled” over man (with consideration also for 1 Corinthians 15:21-22). I think (in accordance with the Roman tradition) that this is not a full reading of the passage, nor a full understanding of the situation. Rather, in my view, original sin is not merely our mortality, but our very corruption, from which we cannot escape without God’s grace.

Let’s take a closer look at the primary passage in question:

On account of this, just as through one man, failure came into the cosmos [on a particular occasion], and through failure, death [came into the cosmos], and thus into all menhere and through the end of the chapter, (persons) death came through,(passed through, reached) upon which [point/time] all [men] died; for until [the] law, failure was in [the] cosmos, but [on the other hand] failure is not put in the account with [the] law not being,(without [the] law) but death ruled from Adam as far as Moses evenlit. and upon the [ones] not erring inlit. upon the transgression of Adam, who is a cast(model / type); lit. beating of the [one] being destined.

But (the favor is not like the blunder);lit. not as the blunder, thus also [is] the favor for if to the blunder of one [man], the many died, much morelit. very much the grace of God and the gift in grace, [that is, in] the [grace] of the one man Jesus Christ, abounded unto the many. And [it did] not [abound] as the gift through the one [man] having failed [on a particular occasion]; for on the one hand, the judgment fromlit. out of one [blunder] [leads] unto condemnation, but on the other hand, the gift from many blunders [leads] unto justification.lit. a just [act] For if, by the blunder of the one [man], death ruled through the one [man], much morelit. very much the [ones] seizing in [this] life the abundance of the grace and [the abundance] of the gift of justice will rule through the one Jesus Christ. Then therefore as through one blunder into all men [it has come] unto condemnation, thus also through one just [act] into all men [it has come] unto justification of life; for just as through the disobediencelit. misunderstanding of the one man, the many becamehere and in the next clause, lit. were put/set down [as] erroneous, thus also through the obedience of the one [man], the many will become just. But [the] law came in alongside, in order that the blunder might be more than enough;(superfluous) but where the error was more than enough, grace over-abounded,(abounded even more) in order that, just as the error ruled in death, thus also grace may rule through justice unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our lord.

– Romans 5:12-21 (my translation)

If you’ve read my full translation of that chapter, then you’ve probably seen a few of the cross-references as well. Let’s take a quick glance at the most relevant one, which I mentioned above:

For since death [came] through a manhere and throughout, (human), raising of [the] dead also [came] through a man; for just as in Adam all [men] die, thus also in Christ all [men] will be made alive.

– 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 (my translation)

Here’s the issue, generally speaking: it may be that what is passed through procreation is merely biological mortality, and not a sinful nature–but from where does our mortality come? Romans 6:23 and James 1:15 tell us that the natural result of sin is death, that death is the just payment for sin. Above, we read that by the sin of Adam, many died, and that grace abounded unto them–but later, we read that we receive grace to accommodate our sin. We see, especially, that through Adam’s sin, the many became sinful–not mortal. Finally, we read that sin ruled in death; so death may have ruled, but sin ruled in it. Which is the greater ruler?

But I grant that it is clear that death comes to us through Adam’s sin. St. Paul makes that plain. But what kind of death is he speaking of? Biological death? Certainly that is the subject in the 1 Corinthians passage, where he is arguing for the resurrection of the dead (that resurrection being one of our bodies after our biological deaths). But here in Romans, where we see this doctrine taking shape, I think he means quite a different death: a spiritual death.

Recall the commandment broken by that first sin: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:16-17, NRSV). Anyone aiming at interpreting this passage must either deny the physical meaning of “day” or the physical meaning of “death”; the latter makes more sense. Adam and Eve, in their first sin, died a spiritual death; they were separated from God. Thus was Satan able to twist the word of the Lord, saying, “You will not die.” Adam and Eve feared death (or else God’s warning has no power or sense), but they did not grasp the fullness of God’s meaning. (Consider also John 8:51; Romans 8:13; Ephesians 2:1-10; Colossians 2:13; et al.) Of course, this sin resulted in their physical deaths as well, but not on that same day; just as, likewise, our salvation by Christ will result in resurrection from the dead and eternal life, but our spiritual freedom from sin is immediate (Romans 6:15-23).

After all, if original sin is merely biological death, would its cleansing through baptism, the sacraments, the sacrifice of Christ, not make us immortal immediately? But of course we still die physical deaths–for “death is made idle as [the] last hated [one],” being subjected to Christ last of all his enemies (see 1 Corinthians 15:25-26). But dare we say that we are still subject to original sin when we have been set free from every slavery unto the old self? Christ is our master, and no other; physical death is but a temporary inconvenience to the glory of God.

So when St. Paul wrote that “death rules” on account of Adam’s sin, I think it clear he meant spiritual death–that is, corruption. And we shall yet die physically, whether we are saved or not, but those of us who are saved will be resurrected and reign eternally with him, conquering at last physical death and subjecting all under God.

But of course, I am a limited man, and many great minds and saints have debated this question over the millennia, so I trust the authority of the Church on the issue. You may trust what you will.

Next week, I will look at the first of the seven sacraments: baptism. This will work directly with the question of original sin and how the Catholic Church deals with the reality of it. See you then!

A War’s Beginning

Terms of Enlistment (Frontlines #1)Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this, which I think is the point. But I also spent a lot of time not sure how to feel about it.

First, the most jarring thing for the average reader: present-tense storytelling. Mr. Kloos uses the method effectively, I think, because the story keeps you engaged, even when it’s not an action sequence, and you aren’t dragged in and out of the story’s pacing when we do enter an action sequence. But when you flip open the book and start reading, it’s initially disconcerting to find everything in the present tense (excepting a couple of minor typos, anyway).

The biggest downside of this book, probably, is the last sentence (“This one’s just begun.”) or the title of the final chapter (“The End of the Beginning”). This book is the first of a series, and it’s pretty obvious. As a standalone book, it’s never quite clear where the story is going, where you’re being taken as you follow the narrator’s life from “welfare rat” to soldier and beyond. Sometimes, you gloss over weeks or even months at a time. In other places, you’re in the trenches, and two or three chapters cover one afternoon. You meet a lot of characters, about most of whom the narrator sadly comments, “I’ll probably never see them again”–and in an average book, you would see them again, so it’s confusing when you don’t. We keep dropping old characters and picking up new ones without returning to the old. (Probably, we will see at least a few of those characters again in future installments.)

There are a few other challenge points. Plot-wise, I never really understood why the narrator, who takes a different position in the last third of the book, never really takes up the mantle of soldier again (in most of the book, he is a capable soldier who even shows above-average tactical awareness, albeit still inexperienced and making mistakes along the way, but at the end of the book, when he has ample opportunity to step up and fight hard, he almost seems to have forgotten that whole part of his life). Perhaps Mr. Kloos is simply trying to make the character feel limited and realistic, but in a book that otherwise reads like an action/war story, the hero behaves notably unheroically.

And this may just be a me-problem, but I know a character used “Sarissas” to do something cool a couple chapters ago, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to remember what one is without at least one boring noun nearby. (There were a couple instances of this, where a piece of technology was introduced at one point, then referenced later, without quite enough info for the reference to be completely meaningful.)

But almost all of my objections are on the grounds that I (generally) understand the format and flow of stories, and this one threw me for a loop a couple times. I did enjoy reading it, which, again, I think is the point. It’s science fiction/war, perhaps with a little more emphasis on the war, but that’s because, for the majority of the book, the sci-fi parts are all in the world-building, rather than the main plot. The politics, society, technology are all backdrop, not front-and-center.

It’s a good book. I will likely get to reading more of Mr. Kloos’ work eventually, but I have a long list of things I should probably read (and write) first. For now, I’m glad I read it.

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Swimming the Tiber 11: The Virtus in Virginity

The English word “virtue” comes from Latin virtus, literally “manliness.” Of course, in ancient philosophy, there was a transition from simple “manliness” to real virtue (like those I discussed a couple of weeks ago), and then deeper, more complex transitions over time to arrive at the wide range of modern views on virtue and ethics.

But as George Orwell and anyone who has sought to change terms (gender-neutral nouns and pronouns especially, such as “chairperson” or the intentional abandonment of feminine forms like “stewardess”) can tell you, words have power. That’s why I studied classics, why I examine Scripture in the original language (as much as possible), and why I prefer literal translations of texts to “gist” translations. Words are not merely the means by which we convey sentiments or communicate ideas; they are ideas.

Here’s what I mean: For physical things, when words fail, we can point to the physical reality of the object. If I say “apple,” and you don’t know what I’m talking about, I point to an apple. But with abstract things, that’s not possible. Abstract ideas only exist as words. If I say “philosophy,” or “courage,” or “wisdom,” or “virtue,” and you don’t know what I mean, the only way I can clarify it is with more words. Different words, maybe, if I know what I’m talking about, but just words. Even actions based on abstract ideas don’t always communicate those ideas. If, in trying to communicate the virtue of humility, I show a Homeric Grecian a king who washes a fisherman’s feet, he wouldn’t see a virtuous king at all, but a slave, and a particularly lowly one at that. I wouldn’t be communicating humility, I’d be communicating servitude, and it would take many more words to clarify why that servitude is a desirable trait that we call “humility.”

So when we think of “virtue,” we quickly think of manly behaviors. We even perpetuate this mentality in the modern age: “Be a man! Man up!” The idea that manliness is desirable, not just for boys, but as the pinnacle of ethical behavior, is ingrained into the words we use at a more basic level than we consciously understand. The real challenge, then, is not to come up with a Newspeak word for virtue that abandons its old roots, but to change how we understand manliness. Manliness ought only to be desirable insofar as it resembles godliness, especially as exemplified in the God-man. Manliness isn’t Stoicism or Vulcan emotional control or thoughtless decision-making or brash hotheadedness or warmongering; “manliness”–virtue–is living as God intends for us, following the virtues as outlined by God and the Church (which I discussed in some detail a couple weeks ago, like I said).

But here I am going on about virtue and manliness, and I haven’t even mentioned the other topic in my title: virginity. As much as “virtue” has its roots in man, “virgin” has its roots in woman. Virginity, as a concept, is inherently feminine. To speak of a virgin man simply didn’t make sense. (It doesn’t help that male virginity cannot be proved or disproved, whereas female virginity is typically proved by the presence or absence of the hymen.) The word derives from Latin virgo, meaning a young girl or maiden, specifically one unmarried (contrast puella, “girl,” which has no particular connotation of virginity, and which could even mean a young wife). In Greek, the word was παρθένος (parthenos), and because of its meaning, it was given to Athena, the virgin goddess. Hence we call her temple in Athens the Parthenon. (Contrast Greek κόρη, which is basically identical to puella.)

No one used these words to refer to chaste men until Christians did.

Even the English word “virgin” was used about women for a hundred years before it was used about men.

So why do I say that there is virtus, virtue, manliness, in virginity? Because Scripture and Tradition make it clear. Paul’s strongest teaching on virginity comes from 1 Corinthians 6:12-7:40. Let me hit the highlights:

Flee fornication.1 Every error which a person does is outside the body; but the [one] fornicating errs into his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy spirit in you, whom2 [you] have from God, and [you] are not your own?3

1 Corinthians 6:18-19 (my translation)

But about [the things] which [you] wrote, [it is] beautiful for a man not to have intercourse with4 a woman; but on account of fornications, let each [man] have his own wife and let each [woman] have her own husband….But I say this [thing] according to an allowance, not according to a command. But5 [I] wish that all persons be even as myself; but each [man] has his own grace from God, the [one] thus, the other thus.

1 Corinthians 7:1-2, 6-7 (my translation)

But about virgins I do not have a command of [the] lord, but I give a thought to be faithful as the [one] being pitied by [the] lord. Therefore I acknowledge this to be [from the beginning] beautiful on account of the compulsion having been put in place, because [it is] beautiful for a man to be thus. [Thou] have been bound to a woman, do not seek a release; [thou] have been released from a woman, do not seek a woman. But if [thou] marry [on a particular occasion], [thou] did not err, and if a virgin marries, [she] did not err; but the [ones] such as these will have affliction for the flesh, but I am sparing you. But [I] say this, brothers, the time is drawn together;6 for the remainder, both the [ones] having wives be just as the [ones] not having [them] and the [ones] wailing just as the [ones] not wailing and the [ones] rejoicing just as the [ones] not rejoicing and the [ones] buying just as the [ones] not possessing, and the [ones] using the cosmos just as the [ones] not using [it] up;7 for the form of this cosmos is passing by. But [I] wish that you be unconcerned. The unmarried [man] cares about the [things] of the lord, how [he] may please the lord; but the [man] having been married cares about the [things] of the cosmos, how [he] may please the wife, and [he] has been divided. Both the woman (the unmarried [one]) and the virgin care about the [things] of the lord, in order that [she] may be holy both in body and in spirit; but the [woman] having been married cares about the [things] of the cosmos, how [she] may please the husband. But this [I] say toward the benefit of you yourselves, not in order that [I] may cast a noose upon you, but toward the decent [thing] and [toward] constant attendance to the lord undistractedly.

1 Corinthians 7:25-35 (my translation)

What’s the message here? That to abstain from marriage is a good thing, not because marriage is bad, but because serving the Lord is better. The temporal passes away, but the eternal does not; marriage is a temporal good, devotion to the Lord an eternal one. The married man is like Martha, concerned with what people will eat and where they will sit and how to get through the day, but the unmarried man, the one wholly devoted to God, is like Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus growing closer to Him (cf. Luke 10:38-42).

Of course, marriage is still good. It can bring us closer to God, especially if we struggle with temptation (another verse in that chapter of 1 Corinthians says that we should marry so that we do not burn with passion; I think the play on words with burning is obvious). It is through marriage that we obey the very first commandment ever given to man by God: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).

But the good of virginity goes beyond the good of marriage. Marriage is wonderful, mysterious, delightful, productive, and, admittedly, difficult. The striving and the joy make us better people. But virginity allows people to dedicate themselves to God in a way that married people cannot. You can spend your entire life devoted to that one single purpose–knowing God–with no distractions.

There is also a long association of virginity and purity; after all, before marriage, anyone truly virginal is pure and chaste. In that way, virginity embodies the perfect vision of Christ for His Church: that she be pure and perfect, prepared for the marriage-feast with Him (cf. Deuteronomy 31:16-22; 1 Chronicles 5:25; Psalm 24:1-6; Jeremiah 5:7-9; the entire Book of Hosea, especially Hosea 1; 3; 4; Matthew 25:1-13; Luke 20:34-36; and 2 Corinthians 11:2-3). For we say that the Church is the Bride of Christ (Matthew 9:14-15; Revelation 19:7-10; 21; 22:17).

So there is tremendous virtue in virginity. Besides the obvious development of self-control and devotion to the Lord, it represents the very relationship of Christ and the Church, the anticipatory moment, the time of preparation for His coming. The virgins of the Church help make her ready. Even more than that, virginity devoted to God represents the time after the wedding-feast, our eternal life, when everything we do is devoted to God, to praising and worshiping Him.

In the same way, marriage represents both that embrace of Christ and His Bride and also the unitive and procreative love within the Godhead, but remember this: in the resurrection, we neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are fully devoted to God. Virginity is more virtuous, not because marriage is in any way poor or weak, but because the dedicated virgin is getting a head start on eternal life with the Lord.

Next time on Swimming the Tiber, I’m going to examine the question of original sin. Some Protestants hold to this, others don’t, and even those that do have differing interpretations of what it means. That discussion will launch us into an examination of the seven sacraments, so get excited!

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Back to the passages
1This Greek word, πορνεία, is one of the roots of our word “pornography,” which literally means a drawing or writing of fornication.
2This relative pronoun should be accusative (as “whom” in English), but it has been attracted to the case of its antecedent (“the holy spirit”), and so it is technically genitive (as “whose” in English). The sense does not change.
3Cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 6:16. Some manuscripts have this third clause as a separate sentence, ending the question after “from God.”
4This verb can mean simply “to touch,” but literally means “to fasten” or “to join” two objects together, and so in context, it clearly means to “join” with a woman (and is used that way in more places than just this passage).
5Some manuscripts: “For”
6This is a passive periphrastic form; that is, it uses a participle (“drawn together”) with a form of εἶμι (to be), in this case ἐστίν (“is”) to create this phrase. The point of using a periphrastic form instead of the regular form συνέσταλται is to emphasize the current state of affairs (that the time is short) rather than the action (that something shortened the time).
7As elsewhere, this is a reversal in idiom; this verb literally means to use down. In English, we say that we use something up, but in Greek, they use it down.

Swimming the Tiber 10: Judging Your Sins

Happy new year! I’m not going to talk about New Year’s resolutions, I promise. (Well, at least not outside that sentence.)

Last week, I talked about virtue and vice from the perspective of Catholic philosophy; the week before, I talked about how we are justified and, more crucially related to this topic, how sin and salvation interact. Please keep both topics in mind going forward.

When I was younger, I had a particularly egalitarian view of sin. Basically, I told myself that all sins are committed equal. Whether you murdered someone, robbed them, flipped them the bird on the freeway, or gave them an uncharitable thought, you had sinned, and that was all it took to condemn you (lacking God’s grace, of course). Nazis were on an even playing field with schoolyard bullies.

A simple logical appraisal tells us that this is ridiculous, but it cemented itself in my mind for a reason: it was a reaction against moral relativism. In a sense, moral relativism tells us not only that we can define “good” for ourselves, but more importantly, that there is such a thing as “good enough.” Secular philosophy says that if we’re mostly good, then that’s fine, and we can do a few bad things here or there (errare humanum est, am I right, Seneca?) without endangering our souls (or being “Bad People,” depending on the particular flavor of secular philosophy we’re talking about).

Even as I child, I knew that was hogwash; we can’t be good enough (that would make us practically Pelagian!), because that would invalidate the sacrifice of Christ, and that would make God not just extraordinarily cruel, but unjust. (After all, if we can achieve perfection and salvation without divine intervention, then Christ’s death was unnecessary, and in such a case, the execution of Christ as propitiation for sin is excessive rather than normative. In short, if we can choose not to sin, or if we can be saved in spite of our sin without repentance, then Jesus died for no reason.) So I said that all sins were equal, basically so that I could refute anyone who said that little white lies wouldn’t send them to hell.

But I didn’t make that conclusion from logic, I made it from convenience. Saying the first part made saying the second part easier, it didn’t make it truer. The former doesn’t prove the latter, and the latter doesn’t necessitate the former. Here’s what I mean: I can say that all sin is sin, and that any sin (whether the taint of original sin or the commission of any sin small or large) is enough to separate us from the presence of God, without once suggesting that genocide and mild deception are on the same level. And so I should.

Because obviously not all sins are equal.

But all sins are sins.

Which brings us to the main point of this week’s post: the Catholic concept of “mortal” and “venial” sins. Recall that two weeks ago I talked about the idea of losing our salvation through sin, that by sinning, we separate ourselves from communion with God. In the Catholic Church, sins are put into two classes: mortal sins and venial sins. Mortal sins are the big ones–the ones that cause that fall from the state of grace. Venial sins are the small ones–the ones that are bad, the ones that helped to condemn our souls in the first place, the ones from which we need to be purified, but that do not reflect an evil or unrepentant heart (just a frail human one). This is even Scriptural:

If someone sees his brother committing an errorlit. erring an error not toward death, let [the one seeing it] prayhere and throughout, lit. ask, and he will give to him [the one sinning] life, for the [ones] erring not toward death. There is error toward death; not about that do [I] say that [he] should pray.a purpose clause as a kind of indirect speech; literally, this sentence is something like “not about that do [I] speak in order that [he] may pray [about that]” Every injustice is an error, and there is error not toward death.

– 1 John 5:16-17 (my translation)

Let me be clear: classifying sins is not about judging people, just about judging sins. It’s okay to call yourself the foremost of sinners, but you shouldn’t go around saying it about other people. If a Christian is sinning openly, respond as exhorted by Scripture and the Church (Matthew 18:15-35; Galatians 6:1-10; cf. 1 Corinthians 5), but whether in the Church or out, final judgment is reserved to the Lord. (Again, as I’ve written before, the Church does not keep a list of “anti-saints” who are in hell, but does keep a list of saints who are surely in the presence of God even now.) Judging your sins is about examining your own conscience, so that you know what to confess and where to improve.

In fact, proper judgment of sins is crucial to a good confession. I will talk in more detail about the Sacrament of Confession/Penance/Reconciliation in a few weeks, but here’s the short version: since Christ gave the Church the authority to bind and loose sins (see Matthew 18 again), the Church engages that authority through private confession to a priest. In general terms, in such a confession, you should identify your mortal sins by kind and number, and your venial sins more generally (though as accurately as you can). This isn’t about doing “spiritual accounting” or keeping a detailed log, but it’s about identifying all the areas in your life where you are still broken and to what degree you are broken.

(By the way, I should note that these two classifications, “mortal” and “venial” are not the entire spectrum of sin severities; there are some mortal sins which are so heinous that a regular priest does not have authority to loose them, and even a few–five, last I checked, and most of those can only be committed by priests–where only the Pope has that authority.)

So how do you judge your sins? Well, the Church identifies sins as mortal if they meet the following criteria:

  1. The sin must be a grave (serious) matter.
  2. The sin must be committed with full knowledge.
  3. The sin must be committed with deliberate consent.

Grave matter is defined as the Ten Commandments, in short. Stealing, killing, committing adultery, etc. Grave matter has been more fully defined, especially in light of “modern” sins that may or may not have been spelled out in Scripture; there are a wide range of books that are useful for the examination of one’s conscience (i.e., the judgment of one’s sins). (I find this one very helpful, but there are even apps for that.) Full knowledge means knowing that something is a sin and doing it anyway (pretending not to know makes it worse). Deliberate consent means that it is a personal choice (claiming hardness of heart is not an exemption, but compulsion may be, in the determination of the Church). If any of these criteria are not met, then the sin is venial, not mortal.

For some more detail on these subjects, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1854-1864.

Next week, I’m going to drop all the sin talk and focus on one of the virtues–not one enumerated, nor one universal, but a virtue nevertheless: virginity.