Swimming the Tiber 4: Papists and Popery

I swear the first time I heard someone say “popery,” I thought they said “potpourri.” That was a confusing conversation, let me tell you.

I have discussed at some small length the authority of the Church and of Tradition, both in determining the canon of Scripture and in their influence on the faith, handed down to us by the apostles. But there yet remains one great white whale of Catholic and Protestant disagreement–indeed, the very source of the latter name: the Papacy.

The Scriptural authority of the Papacy frequently depends on an oft-disputed passage of the Gospel of Matthew. This passage is so disputed that Zondervan’s NASB goes out of its way to provide a suggestion that Peter ought to be divorced from the foundation of the Church, in a place where that information would otherwise be irrelevant. Here’s the passage, first in the original Greek (or as close as we can get) for Matthew, chapter 16, verses 13 through 20:

Ἐλθὼν δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς τὰ μέρη Καισαρείας τῆς Φιλίππου ἠρώτα τοὺς μαθητὰς αὐτοῦ λέγων, Τίνα λέγουσιν οἱ ἄνθρωποι εἶναι τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου; οἱ δὲ εἶπαν, Οἱ μὲν Ἰωάννην τὸν βαπτιστήν, ἄλλοι δὲ Ἠλίαν, ἕτεροι δὲ Ἰερεμίαν ἢ ἕνα τῶν προφητῶν. λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ὑμεῖς δὲ τίνα με λέγετε εἶναι; ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ Σίμων Πέτρος εἶπεν, Σὺ εἶ ὁ Χριστὸς ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ζῶντος. ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Μακάριος εἶ, Σίμων Βαριωνᾶ, ὅτι σὰρξ καὶ αἷμα οὐκ ἀπεκάλυψέν σοι ἀλλ’ ὁ πατήρ μου ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς. κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ᾄδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς. δώσω σοι τὰς κλεῖδας τῆς βασιλείας τῶν οὐρανῶν, καὶ ὃ ἐὰν δήσῃς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται δεδεμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς, καὶ ὃ ἐὰν λύσῃς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται λελυμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς. τότε διεστείλατο τοῖς μαθηταῖς ἵνα μηδενὶ εἴπωσιν ὅτι αὐτός ἐστιν ὁ Χριστός.

Now my English translation (interesting footnotes not relevant to the issue at hand are linked):

But on the other hand, Jesus, coming into the portions of Caesarea, the [Caesarea] of Philippos, was asking his disciples, saying, “Who do men say that the son of man1 is?” And they said, “On the one hand, the [ones] [say] John the Baptist, but on the other hand, others [say] Elijah, but different [ones] [say] Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” [He] says to them, “But you, who do you say that I am?” And then Simon Peter, having answered, said, “Thou2 are the Christ, the son of God, the living [God].” And then Jesus, having answered, said to him, “Thou are blessed, Simon Bar-Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to thee, but my father who [is] in the skies. And I, on the other hand, say to thee that thou are Peter, and upon this stone I will build3 my assembly, and [the] gates of Hades will not overpower it.4 I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of the skies, and whatever [thou] fetter [on a particular occasion] upon the earth will have been fettered in the skies, and whatever [thou] unbind [on a particular occasion] upon the earth will have been unbound in the skies.” Then [he] gave express orders to the disciples, in order that no one might say that he was the Christ.

Obviously, verse 18 is the crux of it: “And I, on the other hand, say to thee that thou are Peter,” etc., etc., etc. But there are some important things to note here.

The first is word choice. The NASB and every Protestant Bible scholar on the planet will tell you that God named Peter Πέτρος, but called the foundation of the church πέτρα, precisely because they were different words that meant different things. I’ve heard that argument plenty of times. Made it myself once or twice, ignorant as I was. So when I was studying this, I finally looked it up in the preeminent Liddell & Scott lexicon. And lo and behold! The dictionary says that the two words are distinguished from each other. That settles it, right?

Well, let’s look closer, just to be safe. Let’s see, πέτρος, a stone, an individuated stone. A single stone. A masculine noun, too. Neat. Okay, πέτρα, that’s supposed to mean a really big rock, right, some kind of boulder or foundation, like Peter’s declaration of faith, right?


Looks like πέτρα means “rock.” As in the material. “Stone” as a material. Or maybe the geography (the “rock” of cliffs, for example). It can also mean “rocks” (individuated!), but it is distinguished from πέτρος because the latter almost always means “a stone,” whereas πέτρα means “rock” or “stone,” in general. But Xenophon, in multiple works, uses πέτρα to mean “stone” and “stones” interchangeably. All the time. To add to the difficulty, so does Scripture in Matthew 27:51; Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:8; and Revelation 6:15-16. And looking back, it looks like πέτρος has even been used to mean a boulder… so it’s not always tiny.

So it’s not as clear-cut as “Peter’s name means a pebble and the rock is a huge slab of faith!” Rather, it’s not that at all. Consider Jesus’ style: he has been playing on words since his opening question in this passage; indeed, throughout his ministry, he plays on words (cf. Matthew 23:24, comparing Aramaic galma (gnat) and gamla (camel); John 3; 12:32; 18:5-6). And you’re telling me that he would suddenly subvert that pattern, specifically to exclude a man he just named “blessed”?

So no, from a linguistic perspective, the word-choice argument against the Papacy doesn’t hold water.

Let’s look at a few other support beams in my favor. Throughout this passage, Jesus (and, more specifically, Matthew) is using the terms μέν and δέ. These are the usual terms for differentiating one thing from another in a list, or distinguishing multiple things when they are parallel. It’s also great for saying, “This thing, and then this other thing, and then this other thing, and then this other thing.” Those words are very versatile. That’s where most instances of “on the one hand…on the other hand” come from in Scripture translations (as you see in mine above). So when Jesus is saying, “Simon, thou are the rock, [and]…” is he using δέ, to signify a change? Nope–he’s using καί, signifying a continuation. There is no reversal. There is no change. Linguistically, Jesus is linking Peter to the stone, not separating them.

Speaking of links and parallels, what’s the deal with this sentence, anyway? “And I, on the other hand, say”? What’s going on there? Well, the structure of the sentence is nearly identical to the structure of Peter’s response to Christ in verse 16. He says, “Thou are the Christ, the son of God, the living [God].” Christ turns around and says, “And I, on the other hand, say that–” note the identical words here, “–thou are [the] stone, and on this stone, I will build my assembly, and [the] gates of Hades will not overpower it.”

Note my dubious use of the definite article there. The issue is this: ancient Greek has no indefinite article. It has some words that can approximate it, when something’s indefinite status needs to be called out very explicitly. But otherwise, if you want something indefinite, you just leave off the definite article. Oh, unless it’s a name. Then you can include the article or not, but you’re only talking about that one guy (or God, or any proper noun). Or when it’s the Law. It’s okay to leave off the article then and not mean any old law, but the Law. And a few other, itty-bitty, irrelevant, don’t-even-worry-about-them exceptions. So whether Peter is “a rock” or “the rock” depends pretty heavily on whether Jesus really is giving him the name Peter in this moment. If he is, all bets are off; if he’s making a simple statement about reality, he could just mean “a rock”… but not necessarily. I think “the” rock is appropriate, because I think this is the moment of the naming of Peter.

But whether he says, “Thou are a rock,” or, “Thou are the rock,” the rest of the sentence follows along all the same, marking him as the foundation of the Church.

Frankly, Matthew 16 is firmly on the side of the papists. Even before you throw in the obvious parallel with Isaiah 22.

But there are still three major obstacles between saying, “Okay, sure, maybe Peter was the foundation,” and the modern understanding of the authority of the Papacy.

  1. When is the primacy of Peter ever shown in the Scriptures? I only remember him denying Christ and getting yelled at by Paul.
  2. What qualifies the primacy of Peter to transfer from him to anyone else on down the chain?
  3. I’m betting there’s no way you can explain away that doctrine of infallibility.

I’ll tackle the questions of primacy and heredity now; I’m putting infallibility off until next time.

The primacy of the apostles, and Peter in particular, is exhibited in Acts 15. Luke first introduces us to the problem at hand: the Judaizers, who insist on circumcision even for the Gentiles, have great dissension with Paul and Barnabas. (We see Paul write against forcing circumcision on the Gentiles in Romans 2-4; I Corinthians 7; Galatians 5-6; Ephesians 2; Philippians 3; and Titus 1.) The two groups determine that they need a superior authority to their own reason: the authority of the apostles is sought out in Jerusalem.

When they arrive, the apostles and elders (literally the “presbyters,” often translated “bishops”) convene and debate the matter. This is the first Ecumenical Council, under the auspices of St. Peter himself. Eventually, Peter (!) stands and delivers the final say on the matter. The other positions do not hold water. No one pipes up to continue the fight. Peter’s word on circumcision (and salvation) is taken as-is. The only follow-up conversation is what should be demanded of Gentile converts: in short, don’t worship pagan gods. The apostles (!) approve the message, compose the letter, and send it. Here endeth the first Ecumenical Council, under the purview and authority of the Papacy.

And if that is not enough, recall that it is Peter alone who is charged with tending the sheep in John 21. His is the ultimate duty among all the apostles.

There is also the question of passing this authority on to Peter’s successors. There are a few points to consider here.

First, go back to Matthew. Jesus tells Peter that this rock, this assembly, will last forever. The gates of Hades, the very hands of death, cannot prevail against the Church. Christ, the Good Shepherd, wants Peter to tend his sheep until he returns; he has not yet returned, has he? How could the Church stand against the gates of hell, and how could the sheep be tended by loving shepherds, if the apostolic authority given to Peter (and to all the apostles) does not succeed into the next generation?

Some will argue that only the Twelve Apostles have the authority to ordain their immediate successors and fill them with the Holy Spirit–that those successors do not acquire this ability. Acts 9 flies directly in the face of this: though Christ himself has chosen Saul, the man cannot become an apostle until Ananias (not one of the Twelve, obviously) ordains him and fills him with the Holy Spirit. 2 Timothy 2 shows us Paul (a second-generation apostle) exhorting Timothy (third-generation) to pass along the faith (fourth-generation). All this works together to reinforce the continuation of apostolic authority within the Church.

This post grows quite long, and as I said, I will tackle the doctrine of infallibility in my next post. Let it suffice for now that the doctrine is not so unrestrained as you probably believe.

Back to the passage
1 There is a great play on words here using ἄνθρωποι and ἀνθρώπου that is difficult to render in English. The word can mean “man,” and in the singular, it often means “man” collectively (as in “Son of Man”), but in the plural (and sometimes in the singular), it means individuals, and specifically human individuals. It isn’t directly associated with the male sex any more than “mankind” is.

2 As with my translation posts (and as you’ll find in the King James), I’m using “you” for second person plural and “thou/thee” for second person singular throughout. This seems more dignified than using “you” for second person singular and “y’all” for second person plural.

3 From a purely textual perspective, it’s possible this could be a first-person jussive, i.e., “Let me build!” The future (as rendered above) is more likely, though.

4 The antecedent of this pronoun is unclear. It could be assembly (ἐκκλησίαν) or stone (πέτρᾳ). As often happens in Greek, it’s probably both, but if only one, then the closer (“assembly”) is more likely.

Swimming the Tiber 3: Whence Cometh Scripture, Thither Go I

Where does Scripture actually come from? The Holy Spirit, of course. But by what means? Did the Spirit grasp a pen and write it down? Did Christ? Did the Father? Of course not. No one of reason adheres to such claims. (I include certain heretics when I say “no one of reason.”)

So by what human means do the Scriptures come down to us? For when I absolve God of their physical origin, I leave only two options: lesser spirits and human beings. God forbid I attribute Holy Writ to demonic possession; loyal angels do not possess the bodies of men; and spirits by definition have no physical form. That leaves only human action as the physical source of Scripture. But which human actions?

I shall not concern myself with the lengthy debates of the authorship of individual books. Suffice it to say that I accept (as I always have) the traditional attributions of the Books of Holy Scripture, and I will continue to adhere to Church teaching in this matter, should the Church (in her wisdom) alter the specifics of those attributions (as it has with the author of Hebrews, for example). The most relevant question, after all, is not the author of individual passages of Scripture; such disputation does not harm the whole body of work, as its detractors suggest, but helps us better to understand the context. Instead, the relevant question is the compilation of Scripture. If we can trust the compilation of Scripture, then we can trust Scripture, disregarding whether Paul wrote Hebrews, whether it was indeed a letter by design (or a sermon made into a letter), and other minutiae (including therein, for example, the exact date of the composition of Isaiah 39 versus Isaiah 40, or Isaiah 55 versus Isaiah 56).

How, then, has Scripture been compiled? The official compilation for Catholics is most frequently identified as the Synod of Hippo in AD 393. Protestants identify this as canonizing their New Testament, but trace their Old Testament to the Judaic Council of Jamnia in the late 1st century AD (nevermind that this council may or may not have occurred, and nevermind that any post-Christ Jewish canon would necessarily oppose doctrines of those upstart anti-Jewish Christians). To reinforce their removal of the so-called Apocrypha, Protestants insist upon the principle of universal acceptance, pointing to the Jewish canon as authoritative for the Old Testament.

Again, nevermind that Jewish authorities, by the second century, would have opposed any books which reinforced Christian doctrine over Jewish doctrine.

Other arguments exist. For example, “We should only accept those Old Testament books which we have in their original Hebrew.” Well, this is quite the misnomer. In the first place, we don’t have any texts in their entirety in the original Hebrew. The closest we have is the Masoretic text, which has no significant extant copies older than the Aleppo Codex from AD 930, though a few smaller pieces remain from earlier. This is based on Jewish oral tradition, and generally follows older Hebrew texts, but has notable differences from several of the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts. This makes it unreliable as an ultimate source of “original” Hebrew, though it may well be close enough. But the real problem is that demanding Hebrew originals for, say, the “Apocrypha,” is impossible–most scholars agree that the Maccabees, among others, were originally composed in Greek. So any Hebrew versions would be hardly original. For an example a little closer to home, consider that in the Book of Daniel, the original language was nearly half Aramaic (Daniel 2:4-7:28), with the rest being Hebrew. Should we dismiss those chapters as non-canonical as well?

Then there is the appeal to authority. “Jerome repudiated the Apocrypha!” it is claimed. (I think there is a certain irony in Protestants appealing to St. Jerome, but I will return to that in a later post.) Jerome’s preference not to include a translation of the Deuterocanon in his Vulgate depended on a lack of original Hebrew texts; as we have already pointed out, and as it was made clear to Jerome, that isn’t entirely relevant. Jerome went on to translate the Deuterocanon anyway, and included it in the Vulgate. He did not do so under protest, but rather willingly. Is the short-term disputation of Jerome more powerful than his lifelong acceptance of Church teaching? Certainly not, lest St. Augustine’s tryst with Manichaeism eliminate his later baptism, ordination, and saintly life.

The other saints, appealed to in a similar manner, likewise accepted–or even promulgated–the canon put forth at the Synod of Hippo, then ratified at the Councils of Carthage and by the papacy in the decades to follow. Those Church fathers whose opinions are so highly valued–St. Augustine by the Calvinists, St. Athanasius by all who acknowledge the divinity of Christ, and so on–agreed not with the Protestant canon, but with the one decided by the Church. The one decided altogether, at once, Old Testament and New. I have heard Protestants say that the Holy Spirit worked through the Church, despite her faults, to establish the New Testament canon at these points. Does the Holy Spirit often exert influence in one sentence, then fail to do so in the next? Does the Holy Spirit direct a single document put forward by an ecumenical council to be both accurate (of the New Testament) and heretically inaccurate (of the Old)? On the contrary, as is appropriate, when a document is heretical, all of its statements are thrown into doubt, and none are kept sure unless confirmed by some other method.

But there was never a method that confirmed the New Testament canon without confirming at least some of the Deuterocanon within the Old. Is the Holy Spirit so weak that he should fail to establish the canon in even one place throughout the history of the Church? Is the Church so weak that the gates of hell should overtake her with a false canon of Scripture? Certainly not.

The typical response is to discount the historical canon altogether. The canon is reached by careful examination under a set of principles–apostolic authority and consistent content, for example. The Protestant canon, then, is never closed; but it is simultaneously never really questioned. I have heard of no Protestants adding the Shepherd of Hermas, once treated as canonical by several Church Fathers (but rejected by the Church under the authority of the Holy Spirit). The Didache, likewise, has never been added. There is no outcry for other documents of certain apostolic authority, such as the two letters of St. Paul to the Corinthians which are no longer extant; unlike the desperate search for the remains of Noah’s ark, there has been no concerted Protestant effort to find what may well be valuable canonical documents.

How many times have you genuinely questioned the canon of the New Testament, only to arrive at exactly the same list as the Church? Better yet, how often have you arrived at a different list? No, on the contrary, Protestants–excluding heretics who embrace Gnostic gospels–flatly and implicitly accept the canon of the New Testament put forth by the Church… while still rejecting her authority on the Old Testament.

I thought and acted in this way for years.

And you may do so even now.

So I ask you: if not from the Holy Spirit through the Church, whence cometh Scripture?

Swimming the Tiber 2: The Rules of Faith

It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of the mob. […] Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.

– G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, “The Ethics of Elfland”

I have, in my finite wisdom, decided to begin with one of the most challenging topics for any Protestant trying to understand the Catholic perspective. Well, I say “any Protestant”; what I really mean is anyone from the evangelical denominations. The challenge is this: to set aside the sola in sola Scriptura and recognize the authority of sacred Tradition and sacred Church.

I have chosen to start here because acknowledging Tradition (and, by extension, the Church) is crucial to grasping the entire Catholic faith. Catholicism hinges on understanding that Tradition and the Church are just as much rules of our faith as Scripture. But before I delve into that reasoning, let me start where I, personally, started: not just sola Scriptura, but something like solissima Scriptura.

The sola Scriptura of the Reformers placed Scripture first, as the primary rule of faith, but allowed for the introduction of ideas and understandings from Tradition and the Church, provided they did not conflict with Scripture. I began in a place more like John Wesley’s position. He wrote, in the first section of a tract titled Popery Calmly Considered (calmly indeed!), “In all cases, the church is to be judged by Scripture, not the Scripture by the church. And Scripture is the best expounder of Scripture. The best way therefore to understand it is, carefully to compare scripture with scripture, and thereby learn the true meaning of it.”

At first glance, this seems delightfully succinct and self-enclosed. What need is there of Tradition or the Church? We have Scripture. Scripture will interpret Scripture, and all things will be made clear. I held to this view for more than twenty years, perfectly happy in my belief that “Scripture alone” could answer any question of faith. But one thing perturbed me, and ultimately led to the fracturing–and crumbling–of my adherence to this doctrine: if Scripture alone can answer all questions of faith, why didn’t all Protestants agree on questions of doctrine?

Protestant responses to this vary. First, some will say, Protestants all agree on soteriological doctrines: man is saved sola gratia per solam fidem in solo Christo (that is, man is saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone). Right? Well, what about Unitarians (those who deny the Trinity)? Or universalists (those who say that everyone is saved)? They’re Protestants, too. They have the same Bible as everyone else (well, except Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but I’ll get to that later). Why are they so wrong?

Well, I would have said back in the day, they just are. The Holy Spirit isn’t showing them the true interpretation, or they’re allowing their own biases to interfere with the Spirit’s influence. And that was fine, as I said, for a while. But why would the Holy Spirit exclude anyone who earnestly pursues their faith? Or fail to convict someone who idolizes their own ideas? And beyond that, other doctrines matter, too. In fact, sola Scriptura suggests that all Christian doctrines work together to support our understanding of God, and they all stem from Scripture. And the mere existence of thousands of Christian denominations (not all of them Protestant, as one randomly selected website is careful to point out) suggests disunity of understanding.

And of all the sorrows of Church history, disunity is the greatest. On the night Our Savior was betrayed, he repeated in prayer four times his desire for the unity of the Church (John 17:11, 21-23). And I have never been satisfied by the claim, “But we are one! We all believe in Jesus. Isn’t that enough?” No, said I–it really isn’t. Even if that were enough for salvation (James 2:19 tells us it isn’t), it is a weak marker of unity. I agree with most Jewish faithful that Abraham and Moses existed and were who they claimed; does that make me Jewish? I agree with most atheists that Jupiter and Apollo and Juno are not gods; does that make me an atheist? If not, then why does my mere admission that Christ existed and spoke honestly make me a member of the very Body of Christ, the Church herself, in communion with all the saints and the faithful?

But the deepest problem of using Scripture as the ultimate authority is that it simply isn’t possible. Scripture has nuance, culture, and a deeply ingrained mythos isolated to a culture we do not share, and indeed is spread across hundreds, even thousands, of years of national history. Even if you take every passage literally, you will inevitably encounter passages that must be reconciled–was there one angel at the tomb or two? Were there five thousand men being fed, or only four? Am I still not allowed to get tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), or is that a part of the Law, like circumcision and uncleanness, that “doesn’t really apply anymore”? Is baptism necessary for salvation (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38), or is it, too, like circumcision, an imposition of weak men? Is Peter the foundation of the Church (Matthew 16), or must it not be so on account of Luke 22 and I Corinthians 3:11? Like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), how can I understand unless someone shows me what it means? And when I go to that person of authority, I must choose who my authority is. It could be my local pastor, or the theology professor at the nearest seminary, or my friend who happens to read Greek and Hebrew, or my parent, or my spouse. But if I don’t like what that person says, I will go to another. And another. Eventually, I may take it upon myself to interpret the passage. Of course, I will pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance; but what assurance do I have that I am not using my bias to interfere with the Spirit’s influence? Or that I am aided by the Spirit at all?

But if, rather, I go to the Church, and the sacred Tradition that has been handed down within the Church from the apostles, who received it from Christ himself, have I not gone as close to the source of all truth as I can in this physical realm? And while, yes, it is possible for God to speak directly into the ear or the mind, it is likewise possible for the devil; and not everyone has the gift of prophecy, and those that are so blessed do not always have the gift of discerning spirits. Reasoned self-doubt is appropriate here; we’re talking about not just my soul, but your soul–all souls. Understanding the Word of God is essential not only to my temporal well-being, but to the eternal well-being of myself, my family, and all those whom I might evangelize. This is too much responsibility to lay on the sinful and finite judgment of one man, who lacks even the auspices of God’s ordination. I am no one; who am I, then, to be the final arbiter of Scripture in my life and the lives of those around me?

These, then, were my thoughts as I approached at last the universal Church, bedecked in glory. She has those auspices. She was ordained by Christ himself, and he promised that the gates of hell would never overtake her. Here, certainly, I could find assurance in my faith.

It was not that simple, of course. I had objections. I said, “II Timothy 3:16-17 tells us that the Scriptures are of utmost importance.” St. Francis (see the introductory post of this series for a link to the relevant work) replied, “The Scriptures are indeed most useful, and it is no little favor which God has done us to preserve them for us through so many persecutions, but the utility of Scripture does not make holy traditions useless, any more than the use of one eye, of one leg, of one ear, of one hand, makes the other useless” (translated by Fr. Mackey, OSB, 103).

He goes on to remind me of John 20:30-31 and Romans 10:14 (especially, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book,” and, “How are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”). When I refute with Galatians 1:8, which warns against false proclamations, St. Francis replies that Paul expressly declares that the Gospel has been preached, not merely written; so the gospel is both what was taught and what was written, and anything taught contrary to the traditions of the apostles, that which was taught but not written, should be accursed! And the good saint went on to remind me of II Thessalonians 2:14, II John 12; III John 13-14; II Timothy 1:13-14; 2:2; and more still.

By the standard of Scripture itself, I cannot, in good conscience and sound mind, reject the Tradition of the apostles.

What, then, of the third rule of faith for Catholics: the Church? It goes back to my first point, which I took so long to make: we have need of a judge when there is disagreement over the interpretation of Scripture. On any subject, any theological point, when we disagree, we say, “Let us look to Scripture!” But St. Francis reminds us of Matthew 5:13 and asks, “If the Scripture be the subject of our disagreement, who shall decide?” (ibid, 111)

Catholics, then, have this authority in the Church. From the Church extend all other rules of the faith–the ecumenical Councils (some of which some Protestants accept, and others not), the early Church fathers (some of which are accepted and others are not, though, I think, very few are accepted in toto), the papacy (which all Protestants reject, hence the name), the miracles and the saints, and the harmony of faith and reason. (I will touch on most of these topics, including the Church herself, in later posts.)

Thus can Catholics be assured of a right understanding of Scripture and holy Tradition, in sum, the Gospel of Christ–not when they, like Protestants, make their own judgments and apply their own opinions, but when they turn to the “awful authority of the mob,” the great unity of the Church and her doctrine, her understanding, handed down from the apostles, who themselves received it from Jesus Christ in the flesh.

These are the other great rules of the faith, and though I have paid them but little explanation, I hope I have summed up my own conversion. Next time, on Swimming the Tiber, I hope to address the specific relationship between Scripture and Tradition, especially the establishment of the canon of Scripture.

Swimming the Tiber 1: Introduction and Definitions

On this Reformation Day, marking 499 years since Martin Luther set the snowball rolling on what would eventually become Protestantism, I have decided to begin a series on my own Counter-Reformation. You see, of late I have been feeling a conviction of the Spirit that I have been too taciturn about my faith. Part of that is wanting to avoid a misrepresentation leading to misunderstandings; I may well do the topic a disservice. Part of my reticence, too, is avoiding the modern trend of getting fired for expressing my beliefs too publicly, too loud, or too obnoxiously.

But those reasons fall flat when examined. Careful exposition on the reasons for my conversion is not bad presentation; and if someone will be offended by my conversion, they will likely be so regardless of what time I mention it. Most employers (some excepted) do not fire good employees on account of a mild expression of their faith, even if that faith contradicts the opinions held by managers and executives at that company (and since I do not plan to use slurs or other grotesque terminology, legitimate reasons for my firing are not likely to come up); and besides that, even if I am fired on these grounds, I shall “offer it up”–that is, I shall adhere to Colossians 1:24.

The astute and frequent site visitor may doubt my resolve in beginning a long series. You’ve likely noticed that I haven’t reviewed many books lately, and that my translations of Romans have been inconsistently timed. This slow-down is due almost entirely to my busy schedule: two toddlers (or a toddler and a baby, depending on how much denial I’m in about the passage of time), a full-time job, graduate classes in computer science, and my work on The Aegipan Revolution (sequel to The Chimaera Regiment). In all of that, I don’t really have time to read regularly (which is a shame).

“But wait!” you interrupt. “If you don’t have time to read, why would you have time for a new series of blog posts?” Good question! The answer is that I probably don’t. Taking this up will likely deter some other hobby, but that’s okay. Like my translations of Romans, I think this is important enough to let other hobbies (especially those that are the least productive) fall by the wayside.

What, then, is this series about? I have mentioned it obliquely already: my conversion to Catholicism. It will not follow exactly the route I did; my path from Southern Baptist to Catholic was non-linear, darting from one topic to another without logical progression, until finally everything fell into place in a moment of clarity. Instead, I will try to provide structure, building upon each topic to establish the next. I don’t intend to cover every possible objection to the Catholic Church (an endeavor that would surely take a lifetime), but only those which I had myself (and a couple that are tangentially related). Even so, assuming I can post these on a weekly basis (which is my current plan), this series will take me the better part of a year to complete.

Before I get started, let me quickly say that, if you want your apology from someone more intelligent, more humorous, more structured, and more precise, go out immediately and read St. Francis de Sales’ The Catholic Controversy, which is a series of letters he wrote to his diocese as it became Protestant around him. (He succeeded in converting a great many souls back to the Church, and this is the book I blame more than any other for my own conversion.) More than a few of the points I will present come directly from St. Francis’ work. (You can read my review of it here, if you want an overview. And if you don’t want to buy it, though I recommend you do–taking notes is optional, but probable–there is an English translation available online.)

The first step in any good discussion is an agreement of terms. Disagreeing on definitions is the largest hurdle in any conversation about theology and it is the one most often missed or ignored. Simply put, Catholics and non-Catholics do not use the same terms in the same way, and assuming that they do creates a false understanding of the others’ teaching. I am endeavoring, in this first post of the series, to lay out the terms on which Protestants and Catholics frequently disagree so that these misunderstandings are minimized.

(It is probable that I shall edit this post in the future when I think of more terms that need to be defined.)

to pray
To ask or request. Compare once-common English usage, “Pray tell!” in which the speaker asks that the listener provide more information on a subject. Compare archaism “prithee,” literally, pray thee, used by Shakespeare 228 times to have one character ask another something. In Catholic circles, does not mean “to worship.” (In Protestant circles, excluding usages as in Shakespeare, means almost exclusively “to worship,” and praying can only be done to God. This is a linguistic oddity more than a theological one; Protestants use “pray” for its original meaning so infrequently that laypeople are rarely even aware of that definition.)
to worship
As a general rule, Catholics mean the same thing as Protestants when they say, “to worship,” but sometimes, very rarely, they mean it in a literal way: “to apply the appropriate worth to” something or someone. With this usage, it can be applied to just about anything. Because of the rarity of this usage, I prefer never to engage in it, but in case you come across someone saying, “We worship X, Y, Z (not-God),” don’t automatically say it proves that all Catholics are idolaters. It’s just another linguistic alteration over time, and some folks haven’t caught up yet.
I will delve into the soteriological implications of “works” in a later post, but for now, suffice it to say that the term needs to lose its baggage for a good conversation. For Protestants, this word often means that you have fallen into a paganesque method of rote behavior, thinking you can build a stairway to heaven; for Catholics, this word mostly means “labor,” “effort,” or “action.” Attributing more meaning to it will confuse a Catholic and infuriate a Protestant.
holy / holiness
More than a few Protestant evangelical friends of mine have defied usage of the term “holy” in one direction or another. Either “holy” is something that only God is, and therefore we should not apply it to people of any stripe (no matter how good they may be), or “holy” is something all Christians are, and therefore we should not restrict it to certain people. For Catholics, “holy” (synonymous with “saintly”) tends to be held in reserve for both God and the saints. I will delve into the saints in a later post, but for now, suffice it to say that the saints are those “set apart” by God in heaven. Catholic doctrine does not preclude the definition used by Paul (meaning “the faithful” or “Christians in general”) in Romans 15; I Corinthians 6; 2 Corinthians 1; and other places, both in the New and Old Testament. But rather, it favors the definition used by Paul (meaning “the ideal” or “those delineated as holy by God” or “those by the side of God”) in Romans 1; 8; Ephesians 5; and other places. Which of these is the more appropriate meaning can be debated, but the modern usage of Catholics has more than a thousand years of history behind it at this point.
The Five Solas
These belong to Protestantism, and the five solas are: sola Scriptura (Scripture alone is the final authority on God’s plan for salvation), sola gratia (men are saved by grace alone), sola fide (that grace comes through faith alone), solus Christus (that faith is in Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (creation gives glory to God alone). These are not uniquely Protestant, in that some can be interpreted through a Catholic lens and be entirely accurate (most easily the last), but especially the first is peculiarly Protestant (excluding Anglicans, whose three-legged stool of faith gives no primacy to Scripture). To read more about the five solas, here’s a randomly selected website.

That’s all for now. Look forward to more posts in the future. The first topic will be Sacred Tradition, and will involve the daunting task of disagreeing with sola Scriptura. This may seem a very challenging place to begin, but without it, much of the Catholic Church may be dismissed by those who ignore her historical authority.

A Rationalist Reviews a Mystic: What Could Go Wrong?

The Interior CastleThe Interior Castle by Teresa of Ávila
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book took me a really long time to read. It’s not especially dense or complex (although it does get convoluted in some places). The real problem was that, for most of the book, I had little to no common ground with the author’s experience. I kept putting the book down and only decided to finish it in 2016’s Lenten season (which I did not even do, ultimately, missing Easter by about a week).

The reason for this disconnect between me and St. Teresa is this: I’m a fairly practical person. I’m not prone to much in the way of spiritual experience, which has the upside of making my faith pretty rational, and the downside of making it pretty unemotional. So while I readily admit that mysticism is a valid Christian experience for some people–like Teresa of Ávila–it’s not something I have any significant experience with.

So if, like me, you’re looking to read this book as a guide to deepening your faith, it may prove a non-starter if you’re not already open to a more mystical faith.

With that starting caveat, let me present the positives and negatives to this book. (Keep in mind that my negatives may not mean much for you mystics out there.)

Two parts of this book struck me as very good: First, on page 116 of my edition, Teresa provides and important perspective and reminder during the dry periods of our faith. The Lord gives us dry spells as a reminder, she writes, to make us realize that all the good things we have come from Him, which endears us to Him all the more and brings us closer in communion with His will. Too often, we feel abandoned during such times, as though He has left us to suffer to no purpose and with no end, but rather, His distance calls out to us and brings us to pursue Him all the more.

Second, on page 133, Teresa gives us a glimpse of the pain of condemnation, not caused by the torments of hell, but by the sight of our Lord: “I can tell you truly that, wicked as I am, I have never feared the torments of hell, for they seem nothing by comparison with the thought of the wrath which the damned will see in the Lord’s eyes–those eyes so lovely and tender and benign.” That image struck me deeply; God is Love so completely, and in His love, the wretchedness I have done brings forth from His tender eyes such wrath as I cannot imagine. This is a tremendous example of perfect contrition.

A third point works in Teresa’s favor, by my reading, but less well than these first two. Throughout the book, Teresa generally recognizes the philosophical principles of personhood in a way that many people (especially ancient Gnostics and modern pseudo-philosophers) fail to grasp: we are not embodied souls, or ensouled bodies, but a full combination of soul, spirit, and body. The only problem I have with her representation of this is that the parts seem almost divested of one another; a spirit or a soul acting separately from the other, without impact on the body, as if she were sharp enough to divide joints and marrow (Hebrews 4). But this is a small complaint.

Now for my negative points.

Teresa seems to have a general disdain for priests, especially as confessors. At one point (p100) she does laud “learned confessors,” but in general terms (p99, p115) she seems to think very little of what a confessor can offer to someone who is striving to improve his relationship with God–possibly because her confessors frequently were much less mystical than she, and being not mystical, they worried about mystical experiences, since (especially from an outside perspective) it seems very easy to misjudge things mystical as demonic (or vice versa). At any rate, I thought the opinion of priests that came through this text was pretty negative, and I didn’t like it.

Reading this book would have been so, so, so much easier if she had only used the first person when talking about herself. The translators and editors were always quick to point out when the subject of Teresa’s stories was actually herself, usually through reference to her other works, though she denies it at least once (p112). The real issue is that Teresa’s prose (presumably in the original Spanish, though it may be purely a translation problem) becomes so convoluted and twisted that reading it becomes a chore–when she could have shortened the paragraph by ten lines and simplified the whole of it by saying, “I said or thought or did such and such.” It was as though the entire book was spent saying, “Oh, not me! I’m… asking for a friend.”

Frequently, Teresa will comment on how unqualified she is to be writing this book. From a rational perspective, I agreed with her repeatedly. Her grasp of Scripture was even troubling, as accustomed as I am to writers like Augustine and Aquinas, whose references are often spot-on. She waffles constantly, and in several places says things like, “Someone said this in the Bible, I think.” And if she does guess, she has almost equal chances to be right or wrong about it. Raised a Bible-believing Protestant, I instantly doubt any spiritual advisor who doesn’t know his Scriptures.

On a related note, at one point, she claims that there is no greater love than when Jesus prayed for his disciples’ union with God (p154); the translator even used that phrasing (“I do not know what greater love there can be than this”). This flies directly in the face of Jesus’ own use of that phrase in John 15 (and her assertion is not helped by the fact that she does not know where in Scripture Jesus prayed this prayer).

The last thing that bugged me enough to mention was her position on marriage. Granted, most of those who are in celibate vocations, especially in Church history (I’m looking at you, St. Jerome), have negative opinions of marriage, but Teresa’s bothered me at the time. In describing the spiritual journey from isolated sinner to Christian united with Christ, she made an analogy to matrimony (the same analogy that St. Paul made outright in Ephesians 5, and numerous saints and popes have made since), but describes it in shallow terms. It is only “a rough comparison,” but she can find no better; the “spiritual joys and consolations given by the Lord are a thousand leagues removed from those experienced in marriage.” Perhaps I am overreacting, but the Church has vocations to marriage even more than to the priesthood and to holy orders, and with good reason: the grace and joy that accompany the sacrament of Matrimony are no meager things. Even so, I may be reacting too harshly; Catholic favor toward married life has taken a long time to come to fruition, and I cannot blame Teresa too much for being a product of her time.

All in all, this is an important work that may be beneficial to some, but to me–and to perhaps to others of primarily rational faith–it provided little direction or comfort.

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