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Apostolic succession is the theological name for the doctrine that the apostles taught, chose and anointed successors to carry on their ministry.

In reading the early Church Fathers, particularly the Apostolic Father, Clement of Rome, I’d been struck by their apologetic – defense of the faith – conversations with heretics. One of the main themes was that their orthodoxy was proven by their direct succession from apostles, particularly the twelve. This pedigree of Christ to apostle and apostle to disciple was of tantamount importance in the early church and really marked most of the orthodox fathers (exceptions of those with a good pedigree gone bad are quite rare). If you read the Church Fathers, particularly any works versus heretics, you will note that this was frequent particularly when arguing about an interpretation of Scripture. In this defense I recognized a pattern I had seen in the epistles – for St. Paul had done the same. He gives significant emphasis to being questioned and approved by the twelve and singles out Peter when he mentions “even Cephas.” He also refers to Timothy and Titus as “my own sons in the faith.”

Most of Christianity today believes in apostolic succession, but the number of adherents isn’t necessarily relevant – truth is true even if no one believes it, and what is false is false no matter how many believe it; however, when this is true of all of the most ancient forms of Christianity, all the way back to the apostles, it is a pattern to heed. Both lungs, East and West, hold to apostolic succession and take great care to retain record of who ordained who – particularly in reference the Apostles, and to the Patriarchal Sees of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.

Can your church’s bishops – or leaders – trace their anointing and teaching back to Jesus’ apostles? If the twelve and other apostles had churches today, would you argue with them theologically? Insist on your private interpretations? Would you still protest? Or would you submit to their teaching? Is there a closer source to Jesus for authentic interpretation and governing? These were some of the questions I asked myself when confronted with the historical reality of deliberately anointed successors.

There were some objections – some said it was like the game of telephone where Christianity was distorted more each generation, but this was never logically consistent – there were many differences regarding when this theoretical distortion began, and no one knew why it ended with Luther and Calvin, or why people would treat the most important revelation ever received, that they dedicated their lives to studying, like whispered nonsense in a parlor game. Others objected that the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention the doctrine by name, but there are many theological terms – more central than this – that developed over time; they are right to hold that the anointing of Matthias to replace Judas, and the ordination of Timothy and Titus doesn’t by itself necessitate such succession of office, but it also doesn’t indicate a cessation of the office… lack of evidence is not evidence of lack, and, while one needs to avoid arguments from silence, these Biblical instances are not insignificant or silence, and neither is the universal practice of appealing to this pedigree as proof of orthodoxy in the early Church Fathers, and neither are the ancient historical records of names that delineate who succeeded whom. Even the skeptic ought to study the data and ask themselves what is most probable.

Circa A.D. 80, Pope St. Clement of Rome, who learned from Sts. Peter and Paul directly and was the ordained successor of Bishop St. Anacletus of Rome, wrote,

Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ, in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure [from this world]; for they have no fear lest any one deprive them of the place now appointed them. But we see that you have removed some men of excellent behaviour from the ministry, which they fulfilled blamelessly and with honour.” (Letter to the Corinthians, 44:1–3; cf. CCC 861 – 862)

This was one of my main areas of concern when researching the Catholic Church. I read widely on the topics involved from Protestants, the Eastern Orthodox and even dissident Catholics, like Fr. Hans Küng’s book titled, “Infallible? An Inquiry”. The three interconnected doctrines of Apostolic Succession, Petrine Primacy and Papal Infallibility soon came to the forefront. My next three posts will address each of these topics.

When speaking theologically, one can rarely say “Protestants believe” since there are many variables among different denominations, churches and individuals. Many Protestants claim that Catholics preach a false gospel, and many Protestants claim the same thing about other Protestants (although both groups usually believe in sola scriptura). Finding a Protestant who truly understands Catholic soteriology – the study or doctrine of salvation – is extremely rare. The straw-man logical fallacy of a “works-based salvation” is the most prevalent misapprehension (more on that later).

To understand what people believe, understanding their definitions of words is crucial. Misunderstanding terminology causes confusion among Protestants, and between Catholics and Protestants, since the same theologically technical term is often used to mean different things. For instance, the Protestant reformers developed a new concept of justification called “forensic justification” – which created an ontological and chronological dichotomy between justification and sanctification (note that this was an historical invention). When a Protestant uses the word “justification” they might mean “salvation”, “forgiveness”, “regeneration” or “belief” (with or without “repentance”) or they might mean “forensic justification”, as distinct from “actual sanctification” (being considered holy, rather than made holy). However, Catholics might mean “justification” as something which is both “imputed” and “infused,” and/ or as something “intertwined with regeneration and sanctification”. As the Catechism defines it, “Justification includes the remission of sins, sanctification, and the renewal of the inner man” (CCC 2019). So, for the Catholic, justification involves an actual regeneration, an actual rebirth, not just a forensic declaration of justice with an imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone, but a real being made just, and an infusion of Christ’s actual righteousness accompanying the imputation. Behold all things are new, and the being made righteous is as actual as the forgiveness, not the “dung heap covered in snow” that Luther spoke of.

Even common terms can cause misunderstandings. For instance, the word “salvation”. Some Protestants think “salvation” is a once-for-all, punctiliar event (I was saved on Wednesday) – a thing you are (saved) or aren’t (unsaved). Other Protestants think “salvation” is a process (sometimes started by a punctiliar event like belief, or baptism of water, or baptism of the Holy Spirit) – a thing you currently are (if you have confessed your sins, and aren’t living in sin), and hope to continue to be (the hope of salvation), but might choose to reject (by sinning against your faith, or becoming apostate) since you haven’t yet persevered until the end. Catholics are closer to the second kind of Protestants, and will say things like, “I was saved, am being saved and will be saved” – being “saved” is a thing you currently are (by the regeneration of the Spirit in the waters of baptism) and hope to continue to be (the hope of salvation), but might choose to reject (by sinning against your faith) since you haven’t yet persevered until the end. Note that this doesn’t mean that we are unsure of our “salvation” (we know when we are in a state of grace) – we simply don’t presume we will persevere to the end (Hebrews 3:14), or that God will force us to be with him even if we choose to reject him (Hebrews 3:18). We don’t lose our faith in such a rejection, but, unless we repent, and confess, such a rejection might be our final answer (Hebrews 3:12; I John 1:9).

The Catholic Church has always taught that we are saved by grace alone. Earlier I mentioned the straw-man logical fallacy of a “works-based salvation” (“semi-Pelagianism”). Protestants who make this accusation confuse soteriological terminology – particularly the distinctions between “grace” and “faith”, and the relationship between “justification” and “sanctification”. They also ignore the historical meaning of all pre-Protestant theology, and current Catholic definitions, to “prove” the “errors” they presuppose. It’s salient to note that there are some (very few) Protestant groups who are “legalistic” and believe that following certain “laws” will obligate God to save them; however, most who are accused of believing a “works-based salvation” are theologically misunderstood. Naturally, I am speaking of the theologically adept, not those who are simply poorly educated – Catholic and Protestant – and think things like, “My good deeds will outweigh the bad stuff I’ve done” rather than trusting in Christ alone for salvation.

Catholics do believe that our works (good or bad) have consequences (Matthew 7:15-27). We also believe that our good works are meritorious (not filthy rags¹), that is to say, that God rewards them – not just in heaven, but here and now as we are being saved (Hebrews 11:6). We also believe that merit (grace made operative through faith and works) helps us be saved (made just – justified, not merely reckoned just, and made holy – sanctified, not merely reckoned holy) because, by God’s grace, our cooperation with grace activates its saving power (the power is inherent in the grace, not our cooperation), infusing holiness (sanctification) and growing deep roots which enable us to persevere and bear good fruit.

To put it more simply, Catholics believe that all acts of faith, hope and love toward God, and our neighbors, are preceded and enabled by God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8-10; CCC 1996). Thus, it isn’t correct that we trust in our works for our salvation – Catholicism is not legalistic. Rather, our works (prepared by grace for us to walk in) help us by sanctifying us, building up the body of Christ and worshiping God in a manner that pleases him.

The Sacraments hold a special place in Catholic soteriology. “Sacraments are outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for our sanctification” (Catechismus concil. Trident., n. 4, ex St. Augustine, “De Catechizandis rudibus”). Although the manner of their instrumental causality is a mystery, it is clear that the instrumental causality is through grace alone, “And man is made a member of Christ through grace alone.” (St. Thomas, Summa, A[1]; Q[62], A[1]).

So you see, Catholics believe in one faith, which works (not to be mistaken by sound exegesis with “works of the [Jewish] law”), but the charges that this (somehow) negates grace, or that we believe in grace plus works, are false. Some say that faith plus works is the same thing as grace plus works, but they are in error – because it would be inconsistent to say that the faith itself can be a gift of grace, but works cannot be. Furthermore, truncating faith and works does not prevent the error of boasting – one could boast in their faith just as much as they could boast in their works (as if our belief contractually obligated God to save us apart from the law of grace, or made us superior to those without faith). It is the grace that prevents us from boasting, so even though we work to cooperate with that grace in what we believe and what we do, it is “all of grace” not of our faith alone, nor of our works alone; not done in ourselves, but in Christ.

We are saved by the law of grace, through the gift of grace: an actual faith which works. The doctrine of salvation by grace alone is clear in scripture, the fathers, the councils and papal teaching; one of the clearest articulations came from the Council of Trent (Decree on Justification: Chapter V; Canons I, II and III on Justification).

A formulation that would be accurate, but not official, since it is my own, is that man is saved by Jesus Christ alone, by the grace of God alone, through the gift of actual grace in faith and works. Our righteousness is imputed (made possible by Christ) and infused (activated to the full strength the grace contains) by our faith and works. Again, both the faith and the good works are gifts of grace, as it is written,

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10 RSV-CE).

Not everything the Catholic church teaches about soteriology – the study of salvation – is dogmatic, so you will find variations within some aspects of Catholic soteriological doctrine. However, in addition to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (esp. Article 2, Grace and Justification – CCC 1987 – 2029), the Council of Trent clarified Catholic soteriology regarding the new ideas of the reformers, and the Decree and Canons on Justification from the Sixth Session are succinct and delightfully dense – if you would like the clarity of context and are theologically minded, you ought to read them in their entirety. In addition to the authoritative, decredal documents from Trent, there are a few significant times when the Catholic Church has met with Protestant leaders to discuss key differences like justification. Perhaps the earliest was the Diet of Ratisbon (also called the “Diet/ Colloquy of Regensburg”) in 1541 (the fifth article discusses justification), but there are also more recent meetings which resulted in documents like the document “Salvation and the Church” written with Anglicans in 1986, the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document in 1994, the follow-up document entitled “The Gift of Salvation” in 1998,
The Joint Declaration on Justification with Lutherans in 1999 and the Official Response to that Declaration. Some pertinent quotes from those documents are as follows:

It is secure and wholesome teaching that the sinner is justified by a living and effectual faith, for through such faith we will be acceptable to God and accepted for the sake of Christ.

A living faith, therefore, appropriates the mercy in Christ and believes that the righteousness which is in Christ will be freely reckoned for nothing and also receives the promise of the Holy Spirit. (Regensburg, Article 5)

Justification and sanctification are two aspects of the same divine act (1 Cor 6:11). This does not mean that justification is a reward for faith or works: rather, when God promises the removal of our condemnation and gives us a new standing before him, this justification is indissolubly linked with his sanctifying recreation of us in grace. This transformation is being worked out in the course of our pilgrimage, despite the imperfections and ambiguities of our lives. God’s grace effects what he declares: his creative word imparts what it imputes. By pronouncing us righteous, God also makes us righteous. He imparts a righteousness which is his and becomes ours[2]. (ARCIC II, Salvation and the Church, 15)

Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works (JDDJ, 15).

The following are some further technical areas of high theology that cause confusion between Catholics and some of our separated Protestant brothers and sisters:
1. The concept of sola fide – salvation by faith alone – was condemned at Trent (Decree on Justification Chapters VI, X and XI; Canons IX and XIX on Justification).
2. The concept of forensic justification, that righteousness is imputation alone was condemned at Trent (Decree on Justification Chapter VII; Canons XI, XXV and cf. Canon XXXI on Justification).
3. The concept of Free Grace Theology (pejoratively called “Easy Believism” by some who call their view “Lordship Salvation”) – that belief alone, apart from obedience, ensures salvation – was condemned at Trent (Decree on Justification Chapter IX and XII; Canons XII, XIII, XIV, XIV and XXI on Justification). However, this does not rule out the Arminian concept of “free will” which is compatible with the Molinist² and Congruist² concepts of how grace and free will meet (predestination based on foreknowledge).
4. The modern concept of Eternal Security – once saved, always saved – was condemned at Trent (Decree on Justification Chapter XI, XIII, XIV and XV; Canons on Justification XVI, XXIII, XXVII and XXVIII).
5. The supralapsarian concept of unconditional reprobation (double-predestination: the concept that some are predestined to heaven – the elect, and others are predestined to hell – the reprobate) was anticipated and condemned at Trent (Decree on Justification Chapter VIII, Canon VI, X and XVII on Justification). However, this does not rule out the Calvinist concept of “unconditional election” which is compatible with the Thomistic² (via physical change of the will of the elect) and Augustinian² (via moral pressure on the will of the elect) concepts of how grace and free will meet.
6. The Calvinist concepts of “irresistible grace” and “total depravity” were condemned at Trent (Decree on Justification Chapter I, Canons IV, VII and XXII on Justification).
7. The Calvinist concept of “Limited Atonement” – that Christ only died for the elect – was condemned at Trent (Decree on Justification Chapter II; Canon XVII on Justification).

___________________________________________________________
¹”We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isaiah 64:6 RSV-CE). Eisogetes of this verse try to claim that this is a definition of righteous deeds rather than taking the verse in context. In context, the verse communicates a simile (which could be considered hyperbolic prose) expressing a lament about a people who have fallen into iniquity, not a gloss of what “righteous deeds” are.

²For more information on different Catholic ideas regarding the mysteries of where divine grace and human free-will meet see the Catholic Encylopedia’s articles on Controversies on Grace and the Congregatio de Auxiliis.

In discussing apologetics and philosophy as an Evangelical Protestant it all boiled down to one question: “What do you believe about Jesus Christ?” All errors within Christianity related to errors in Christology – theology regarding the person, nature or work of Jesus Christ. What church someone attended or even what religion or philosophy they aligned themselves with were less fundamental, and were matters that a sound Christology would eventually align with the truth.

While this can be applied in a manner which is too simplistic, it is a good starting point for evangelistic conversations; what complicated speaking with those who aligned themselves with Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh Day Adventists was that clear articulations of Christology don’t come from the Bible alone – remember, these groups come from Protestantism, identify themselves as Christian, recognize Jesus as their savior and the Bible as inspired and authoritative. Historic, orthodox Christology is based on the Bible, but many Christological truths we now view as basic fundamentals weren’t fully developed until centuries later. The first seven to eight hundred years of Christianity saw significant doctrinal development, especially in the first seven ecumenical councils. Some of the development arose as an orthodox response to heresies (like Arianism, Macedonianism, Nestorianism, Pelagianism and Monothelitism) regarding Christology, Pneumatology and/ or the Trinity, and other parts of doctrine that developed as an orthodox articulation of truths (like the consubstantiality – homoousion – of Christ, the eternal sonship of Christ, the human nature of Christ through the Theotokos, the hypostatic union of Christ and the theopaschite formula regarding Christ within the Trinity).

Examples of how personally interpreting the Bible (under the auspices of Sola Scriptura) can lead to Christological error come from within Evangelical/ Fundamental Protestantism. A prominent example in the U.S. would be Rev. Dr. John MacArthur, who used to teach incarnational Sonship – denying the eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ. He has since come to believe the historic, orthodox doctrine of the eternal Sonship of Christ, and in his retraction he wrote,

“In fact, many aspects of these truths may remain forever inscrutable, but this basic understanding of the eternal relationships within the Trinity nonetheless represents the best consensus of Christian understanding over many centuries of Church history. I therefore affirm the doctrine of Christ’s eternal sonship while acknowledging it as a mystery into which we should not expect to pry too deeply.” (emphasis added, MacArthur, Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ).

As you read the entire article, you will notice how Sola Scriptura had led him into this error, and how a church father and consistent historic interpretation helped to lead him to Biblical orthodoxy. When one realizes the subtle error that Rev. Dr. MacArthur originally fell into, despite his years of Biblical study and theological education, it is not an occasion for triumphalism, but a sobering reminder that Christianity was meant to be personal within the real, historical continuity of the body (church), under the head (Christ) – not in an emergence of each person and their interpretation, alone. As it is written, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (2 Peter 1:20, 21 – RSV)

Within the official documents of the Catholic Church, I found that the proclamations of faith and morals from the ecumenical councils were viewed as Spirit-led, infallible dogma. I also found these historical, Biblical, conciliar and decredal Christological truths consistently applied throughout the Catechism. For instance we read,

“We believe and confess that Jesus of Nazareth, born a Jew of a daughter of Israel at Bethlehem at the time of King Herod the Great and the emperor Caesar Augustus, a carpenter by trade, who died crucified in Jerusalem under the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of the emperor Tiberius, is the eternal Son of God made man. He ‘came from God’, ‘descended from heaven’, and ‘came in the flesh’. For ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. . . And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.’ (CCC 423)

…and we read,

“To preach. . . the unsearchable riches of Christ”

The transmission of the Christian faith consists primarily in proclaiming Jesus Christ in order to lead others to faith in him. From the beginning, the first disciples burned with the desire to proclaim Christ: “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” And they invite people of every era to enter into the joy of their communion with Christ: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us- that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete.”

At the heart of catechesis: Christ

“At the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, the only Son from the Father. . .who suffered and died for us and who now, after rising, is living with us forever.” To catechize is “to reveal in the Person of Christ the whole of God’s eternal design reaching fulfillment in that Person. It is to seek to understand the meaning of Christ’s actions and words and of the signs worked by him.”‘ Catechesis aims at putting “people . . . in communion . . . with Jesus Christ: only he can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity.” (CCC 425 – 426)

Sound Biblical, conciliar and decredal Christology is the cornerstone of authentic, official Catholic teaching. A detailed study, like my own, will show you that this is consistent and has always been the case with official Church teaching. As the Catechism says, “From this loving knowledge of Christ springs the desire to proclaim him, to “evangelize”, and to lead others to the “yes” of faith in Jesus Christ.” (CCC 429)

It is a dogmatic fact that,

Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation. “Since “without faith it is impossible to please [God]” and to attain to the fellowship of his sons, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life ‘But he who endures to the end.'” (CCC 161, cf. CCC 389, CCC 432)

This witness includes ongoing, current statements against Christological errors in statements like the following,

These methodological positions lead to a seriously reductive and misleading interpretation of the doctrines of the faith, resulting in erroneous propositions. In particular, the epistemological choice of the theory of symbol, as it is understood by the Author, undermines the basis of christological dogma, which from the New Testament onwards proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth is the Person of the divine Son/Word who became man. (Notification on the book “Jesus Symbol of God” by Father Roger Haight S.J. by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith)

Logically, I began to find the cross-referential testimony of Sola Verbum Dei (sacred Scripture, sacred Tradition and the Magisterium) less circular than the doctrine of the infallibility of sacred Scripture alone, and a better reason to believe. Particularly in light of the “alone” portion being a self-contradicting theological development, with no textual support and a basis in a dispute with a few dubious individuals over a millennium and a half after Christ. As the Doctor of the Church, St. Jerome, said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ” (Prologue of the Commentary on Isaiah, Nn. 1.2: CCL 73, 1-3). Reading the official Catechism of the Catholic Church – a book as full of scriptural citations as any work of systematic theology – demonstrated that the Catholic Church is not ignorant of Scripture or Christ.

There are over a billion Catholics worldwide (literally). Who has the authority to speak for the church? This question was central to my inquiry, especially since the divisions between Catholics and Protestants are complex matters of higher theology. I did some research and was glad to find two Latin phrases and a Latin word. The superior’s stamp is the Imprimi Potest; which means, “It can be printed”. The censor’s stamp is the Nihil Obstat; which means, “Nothing stands in the way”. The bishop’s stamp is the Imprimatur; which means, “Let it be printed.” Many books have the following phrase by the words, “The “Nihil Obstat” and “Imprimatur” are official declarations that a book or pamphlet is free of doctrinal or moral error. No implication is contained therein that those who have granted the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur agree with the content, opinions or statements expressed.” Although these can be retracted, and sometimes have had to be, they are a good indicator that the contents of a book probably do not contradict official dogma.

Did you know that the Catholic Church has an official Catechism? It is entitled The Catechism of the Catholic Church and it is available in its entirety online (in English) at official sites like the Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. There are many local catechisms too, like the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults and the Baltimore Catechism. I decided to start my inquiries by reading the official Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Code of Canon Law and as many papal encyclicals as I could find (I cross referenced these against the ones at the official Vatican site and found them reliable).

Before I started reading the official Catechism of the Catholic Church I decided on the following two things: first that I would read cover-to-cover, and second that I would follow and substantiate all footnotes so I would understand the true context. Although I was determined to make the reading as objective as I was able to, I made a short, heirarchical list of the concepts I found problematic.

As when evaluating any readings that claim to be Christian, two core categories were my primary concern – contradictions with the Bible and theological speculation. The primary concern was to be on the alert for contradictions. Sometimes contradictions are reconciled as paradoxes; it is often important to read the entirety of a work to evaluate if that is the case, and intellectual integrity compelled me to read each part in the context of the whole. Although theological speculation had long been a pet peeve, being all too common in evangelical circles, it was not in the same category as outright contradiction. Every tradition has some element of theological speculation, but the speculations had to at least be consistent internally with the theological system, concepts and hermeneutic employed to be palatable. I read with paper and pen in hand to take notes related to either core concern.

At the top of the paper was my hierarchical list of theological concepts I was concerned about:

    1. Christology (Christ’s person and work)
    2. Soteriology (how we attain eternal life)
    3. Petrine Primacy (authority and the dogmas about the Pope)
    4. Marian Theology (the dogmas about Mary)

Unwritten categories mostly included things I was less concerned with – transubstantiation, regenerative baptism, anthropology and hamartiology. These were important, but I wasn’t sure I really knew what the Catholic church taught about them.

As I mentioned in the last post, I had begun to find out that many of my preconceived ideas about what was Catholic were wrong. It made sense. I had learned most of what I knew about the RCC from those who had “converted” from a culturally-based faith or at a young age (sometimes both), and had many basic misconceptions mixed with anti-Catholic innacuracies.

The word “catholic” comes from the Greek noun καθολικός (katholikos), meaning “throughout the whole”, “universal” or “complete”. Its origins are non-ecclesiastic; as we see in the writings of Aristotle and in the early Christian church – like when Tertullian refers to, “the catholic goodness of God”. Currently it seems that it was St. Ignatius in his letter to the Smyrnaeans (c. 110) who first used this word to refer to the Christian church when he wrote, “Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be, even as where Jesus may be, there is η καθολική εκκλησία” (he katholike ekklesia – the universal church). Within the next century we see the term used to differentiate true Christian doctrine from heresies and to signify unity, and by the fourth century we see the word both in creedal forms and in established theological terminology as St. Optatus and St. Augustine write against the Donatists. Even after the Great Schism between East and West, the word καθολικός (katholikos) was used to refer to various Eastern patriarchs.

The adjective “Roman” seems to have originated on the Anglican side of the sophistry which arose during the division between the English Church and Rome. It was soon reclaimed as a modifier by Catholic writers, similar to how the term “Protestant” has been reclaimed as a theological description by the western churches who followed the reformers. It remains an unnecessary adjective.

My dissatisfaction with Reformation authority (sola scriptura) and my study of the history of the church had led me to the apostolic fathers; the fathers, in turn, surprised me in their Catholicity which led me to ask, “What is Catholic?”

The best way to find out the tenets of any religion is to study their primary sources and listen to their leaders; so I went to the Vatican’s official website. I began to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church and official Papal documents.

I soon learned that I had many erroneous concepts of Catholic doctrine – ranging from misconceptions to misrepresentations and calumny.

What do you think of when you think of the early church?

I had been told time and again that the Protestant church was a return to the early church. Although the assertion wasn’t substantiated, it was such a fundamental presupposition that it was taken as a given. The Reformation was supposed to be a reform of established Christianity, an awakening, a return to the true orthodoxy of the early church. In my ministerial studies we studied the early church but if something wasn’t considered explicit in scripture it was viewed as uncertain. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was projecting concepts of a deliberate avoidance of theological and ecclesiastical sophistication; a focus on what was fundamentalist and basic which was contrary to historical fact.

Although I regretted the segregation and denominational disunity, and hungered for unity, I didn’t see a way to repair those divisions. It seemed as if each denomination thought of other denominations as mistaken or even as less mature spiritually. I would come to realize that I was part of the problem, and to face a decision to stay in protest or to submit to the church.

Prior to reading the Apostoloc Fathers I had a very loose concept of the early church. I thought of the house churches mentioned in the Pauline epistles and of church government as coming from the local elders and deacons mentioned in the books to Timothy and Titus. A closer examination of my concepts would have revealed something very close to the Plymouth Brethren paradigm. The apostles would have been an afterthought, because I assumed that after they died there was no structural sophistication beyond the local assemblies they had started. Apostolic succession was absent from these concepts. Although I had seen too much to believe cessationism (the idea that the charismatic gifts like healing and prophecy have ceased), and apostolic authority was clear in the scriptures; I had never really considered the concept of the apostles naming successors.

Ecclesiological sophistication was something else I would not have attributed to the early church, yet the apostolic fathers clearly show otherwise. I understood that Protestants held the first seven ecumenical councils in common with Rome, the Orthodox and Anglicans, but I was largely ignorant about them. (Although riddled with anti-Catholic rhetoric, Philip Schaff goes into more detail in his work on the first seven ecumenical councils and it is available online). In my collegiate theological courses we studied systematic theologies rather than these councils and things like the hypostatic union and the trinity were defined rather than studied in depth.

Also absent from my concepts would have been the sacraments – yet the earliest fathers clearly show a sacramental view of the eucharist and baptism. I was surpised to find that the descriptions of the liturgy and things like community prayer and confession were much more in line with Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican practice and theology than Protestant practice and theology.

The Patristics are far too complex to do justice to on a blog. For one thing I have just begun my study of them. However, the Apostolic Fathers are a small enough slice to be readily accessible. Have you read them? Have you evaluated your presuppositions? Have you tried to make sure you are not projecting your modern experience on Biblical truths? If the apostles were alive today, would your church be in full communion with them?

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