Friday, January 30, 2009

Once Saved, Always Saved Again

I already addressed this topic in greater depth earlier, but there were a few important verses I didn't mention the first time, so I'll focus on those now.

The idea of a completed and unchangeable justification is one of the ideas that most separate Catholics from certain groups of Protestants. This is the difference that compels Fundamentalists to say we are not Christians, that we believe in a "works salvation," and that only Catholics who don't really believe what the Church says are saved.

But let's look at the Bible once more to see what it really says on the matter:
If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: "A dog returns to its vomit," and, "A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud." [2 Peter 2:20-22]
Now, like most things, this could be explained away, but the most obvious meaning is that Christians, the saved, who were following the way of Jesus Christ, can turn away from the faith, entering into a state that is worse than before they ever knew Christ.

Now let's look closely at one of our Lord's own teachings:
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me."

"I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples." [John 15:1-8]
First, who is a branch? Is the unbeliever joined to the body of the lord? No, we know from the scriptures that it is Christians (the saved) who are part of the body, of which Christ is the head. So this verse is addressing those who are already saved, by being "branches" of the "true vine."

Now, what does he tell us, as his branches? Does he say, "You, being branches, will remain in me, and will bear fruit?" No. He clearly requests that we do "remain" in him, and that we let his words have life within us, thus bearing fruit. He clearly does not say that we are guaranteed to remain in him. He says that branches which do not bear fruit will be cut off, and such branches will wither, and will ultimately be thrown into the fire.

This is unmistakeably the Catholic doctrine on Justification:

By God's grace we are offered salvation. By Faith we accept this gift, and become branches on the vine. Being connected to Christ in this way, his divine life flows through us, enabling us to do good works or "bear fruit." If we "remain" in him, allowing his grace to flow through us, we remain saved. If, however, we turn away, deciding to stop the flow of life from the vine, we will not bear fruit. Then we will be cut off.

This verse doesn't show it, but the Catholic Church also believes that such a cut-off branch can be re-attached to the vine by repentance, and a return to faith.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mormons and Catholics

Mesa, Arizona was founded by Mormons, has a Mormon temple, and has an LDS ward on just about every block. So, living nearby, I am constantly reminded that American Catholics are doing a terrible job of Evangelizing.

This seems bizarre to me, given that we can clearly trace our history back to Jesus Christ, and the Mormons can only spout impossible conspiracy theories to try in vain to contradict our claims.

We interpret the Bible sensibly. They twist every other word to make it agree with Joseph Smith's writings, and even then they have to say that we altered the Bible to take out the Mormon beliefs.

So, why are they motivated to spread this stuff, while we are motivated to keep a tight lid on the truth? Do we think that God will run out of love if we share it? Or are we just scared and pathetic? I think I'd fall into the second category myself...

Of course one of the reasons Mormons evangelize so much is because they are expected to do it. So maybe we need to raise expectations. Maybe we need to take the Lord seriously in his call. He has called every Christian to evangelize.

And while there may be times when the best way to evangelize is to "set an example with your own life," I think many of us use this as an excuse to avoid the harder work of sharing our beliefs, inviting people into the Church, and defending our faith. Of course we must keep showing kindness and being a living example while doing this.

I'm doing a bit of research on this topic right now, so I'll probably mention this more as I grow in knowledge on the subject.

For now, check out the Legion of Mary (a Catholic group that does door-to-door, and other missionary work):

Monday, January 19, 2009

Abraham and Isaac

It is often suggested that "the God of the Old Testament is cruel, quick-tempered, jealous, and warmongering." I'll address more of this later, but for now lets look at one of the cases of supposed cruelty found in Genesis 22:

Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."[...]

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?"

"Yes, my son?" Abraham replied.

"The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"

Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"

"Here I am," he replied.

"Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
Now, this can easily come off as a fairly mean thing for God to do. Ask a man to sacrifice his son, what kind of cruel God would do that?

I have felt that way when reading this story before, but then that's looking at matters in a simplistic and worldly manner. We have to consider more to really understand. It took me just a little time and thoughtful reflection.

First, we must consider our approach. Are we looking to ascribe rotten things to God? If we are, we could imagine sinister motives for even his more plainly kind actions. Are we considering other things that are revealed to us in scripture? If we do this, then the whole matter falls into another light.

Thus we turn to the New Testament and see that God is love [1 John 4:8], and we return to Genesis to try to see if there is a way to understand the story as loving. Let's take it apart, and address the different problems.

1. Isn't it cruel for God to ask someone to kill someone?

The first problem is that this assumes that death is the worst possible thing. For someone who denies the soul, death is the end. But if there is an immortal soul, then it is eternal life which ultimately matters, and this life only matters inasmuch as it affects eternity. Therefore if God takes a life, and he does so already knowing the eternal destination of the soul, then he will be sure that the soul goes to the place he knew it had chosen.

Part of the reason humans must be so careful about killing people, even exercising some restraint in war, use of capital punishment, and in situations of self defense, is because humans are not omniscient, and are not competent to judge when a person is ready to leave this world for their eternal destination.

So, if God were to ask someone to kill someone (not something he does often), he would do so knowing the positive impact it would have on eternity and the moral validity of such an action in this instance, something a human is never competent to judge.

Not that this actually applies to this situation anyway, since God did not let Abraham kill Isaac, and he had never intended to let him.

2. But it's still cruel to make a man think he has to kill his son. It's just creepy.

Now, it was certainly a painful experience for Abraham. I'm sure he walked up the mountain thinking, "will God really make me do this? Why would God miraculously give me a son, and then take him away?"

Meanwhile he is telling Isaac that, "God will provide the lamb," hoping that he's right, trying his best to trust in God, even though God has asked him to do this terrible thing.

Let us remember Abraham was the father of the faith. He knew of God, but God had not yet given the law to Moses, and the Jewish faith was in its infancy. Abraham would certainly have hoped that God wouldn't take his son, but Abraham did not have the entirety of revelation we have today. God worked over many years through many hard lessons to teach his people. He did not just pass everything to them at once.

But would such an experience build the faith, or would it cause injury to Abraham or his son? I think the results speak for themselves. Isaac was not angry with God. He passed the faith down to the next generation.

So, if it caused no harm, and it broke no moral law, what is cruel about it?

3. Why make them go through all that, what possible purpose could such a test have served?

If the test served no purpose, and accomplished nothing, then it would indeed have been cruel to force Abraham through those worrisome days, wondering if he would really have to sacrifice his beloved son. But, if the test served a purpose, then the struggle Abraham went through to pass it could have actually been necessary.

The story seems to imply that God did this just to test Abraham's faith, but if God knows all things he could have known Abraham's faith without the trauma. This means that the purpose of the test was not for God's benefit, but somehow it was for Abraham, and perhaps for us.

Abraham learned that if he has faith, and he does God's will, even when it seems like the hardest thing in the world, God will provide, and things will turn out well in the end. And God rewarded him by making him not just the father of Isaac, but the father of the Jews, and by extension the Christians. And these people would remember his faith forever, and remember the lesson that God will always provide.

But this story's connection to God's providence goes further. The story is a foreshadowing of the sacrifice that will redeem all nations.

Isaac, like Jesus, was long awaited and born miraculously. Then, this innocent firstborn son was taken up the mountain which prefigures Golgotha, and carrying the wood which prefigures the cross.

But the two stories end very differently. Isaac, who is only human, and has at least the stain of original sin, is spared by God who substitutes a sheep for Abraham's son. Jesus, who is human, but also God, and entirely without sin, is not spared. For God will suffer himself what he spares us, and his son is the lamb who dies in our place.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

American Beliefs

Well, this isn't new news, but someone wrote a new article on it, and someone else sent it to me, so I'll address it here (click here to see the full article).

Recently a poll of church-goers was done, and the results were widely reported as showing "Unorthodox Beliefs" among Christians.

This article comments that "American individualism has made its imprint on Christianity." This, I believe, is sadly true. We can see Protestant ideas forming the initial individualism of America, and then we can see that American Protestantism was itself affected by the stronger individualism that American culture reflected back at it. Today, it seems to me, even most Catholics have absorbed this American individualism, and with it ideas more befitting liberal Protestants.

The article mentions a few of the results of the survey:
Christians expressed a variety of unorthodox beliefs in the poll. Nearly half of those interviewed do not believe in the existence of Satan, one-third believe Jesus sinned while on earth, and two-fifths say they don't have a responsibility to share their faith with others.
Now, this is certainly unorthodox, and is actually pretty pathetic. We obviously have to try harder to teach the faith to people. Parents need to realize their children won't learn their religion (or morality) on their own (even if they go to catechism classes). Priests and ministers need to speak loud and clear about the truth, and give people reasons to believe this truth. People other than Mormons need to go knocking on doors.

But the supposedly biggest news of the article was this:
The most striking divergence from orthodoxy, however, was first revealed in the 2007 US Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. That comprehensive survey of 35,000 Americans found a majority of Christians saying that people of other religions can find salvation and eternal life.

The results stirred controversy among some Christian leaders for whom Jesus as the only path to salvation is a paramount teaching. Some questioned whether those surveyed about "other religions" might have been thinking of Christian denominations or traditions – such as Protestants referring to Roman Catholicism – rather than non-Christian faiths.

Pew undertook a follow-up survey, which it released in late December. That poll found 65 percent of American Christians (including 47 percent of Evangelicals) do indeed think that many different religions can lead to eternal life. Among these Christians, 80 percent cited one non-Christian faith as a route to salvation; 61 percent named two or more.

Now, I don't know the exact wording of this survey, nor can I imagine how those surveyed understood the meaning of the survey, but this just does not strike me as proof of unorthodox belief.

As Catholics, we believe there is one path to eternal life. That path is Jesus Christ. We also believe he established many steps along that path, such as baptism, faith, love, etc. But we also believe that a person who does not explicitly know the path can still follow Christ to the extent that their knowledge allows, and thus attain eternal life.

In this way it could be correct to say that other religions can lead to eternal life, since those religions do help their adherents to grow in many ways closer to Christ without even realizing it. This is especially true of Judaism, so when the article says, "Sixty-nine percent of all non-Jews say Judaism can lead to eternal life..." I'm not all that bothered.

Of course my complaint may be for naught, since the article does say, "29 percent say theirs is the one true faith." If this means what they make it sound like it means, then only 29 percent of respondents actually believe their religion is objectively true, and not just "true for them." But I guess I'd have to know the exact wording of that as well.

Personally, I think the biggest news may be this:
The survey also asked about views on how one obtains eternal life. Among all adults with a religious affiliation, 30 percent say correct beliefs are what counts, 29 percent say salvation depends on one's actions during life, while 10 percent say both are essential.
I actually find it bizarre that only 10% of people believe that both beliefs and actions are essential, but I also find it odd that 30% of respondents are unaccounted, and once again we'd have to see the exact wording of the question and the available answers to really know everything.

I'm not sure why the News Media thinks it can filter results like this in any sensible way when they don't generally have any clue what religious people are talking about.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sacrifice of the Mass

I recently stumbled across this Q & A by Reformed Baptist minister, John Piper:

Should former Catholics still participate in the mass?

No, I don't think they should participate in the mass (that is, have communion). The reason is that its conceptuality is one of the most serious mistakes of the Catholic Church.

I revisited a Catholic mass recently, for a funeral, and it had been a long time since my last visit. When I watched it again I was so appalled that I wanted to walk out. I really wanted to scream, it was so awful. The language that was used about sacrifice, the kissing of the table, the kneeling down—it was all just so offensive to me that I could hardly stand it.

I think that participating in the Catholic mass comes close to compromising the faith, because it is believed to be a reenactment of the sacrifice of Christ and a saving ordinance.

So no, I wouldn't recommend that someone participate.

What was funny about this was that I had just been reading Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, and remembered the "language of sacrifice" being used in the Didache (c. 60-100 AD), and vehement insistence on the Real Presence in Ignatius' Epistle to the Smyrnaeans (c. 106-113 AD). Let's look at a short portion of the Didache:

But every Lord's day do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.
And then, for a more explicit look at the early Mass, let's see Irenaeus' Against Heresies, which wasn't in the book I mentioned (since Irenaeus wrote this closer to 200 AD, dying in 202 AD), but it is applicable:

Then, again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned. But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.

It seems that John Piper could have easily said something like, "The Mass, conceptually, is one of the most serious mistakes of the early Christian Church. The language that was used about sacrifice, and the ritual practices—it was all just so offensive to me that I could hardly stand it. I think that participating in early Christian worship comes close to compromising the faith."

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Name that Bishop

I'm working on another stab at a letter to try to provoke interest in what the Catholic Church has to say. Let me know what you think.

Dear Friend,

I have been trying to think of whether there was one simple thing that hit me, and made me realize that there might be something to the claims of the Catholic Church. I was not persuaded by arguments unless I saw evidence to back them up. I know that reading the Catholic point of view on interpreting various parts of the scriptures was key, but there is no one verse that makes all the difference, so this cannot be narrowed down enough for one letter. Then, recently, I reread one of the things that struck me. It is a letter by a well respected bishop.

Perhaps I have misinterpreted the facts; those regarding this bishop, and others. I am, after all, human, and am capable of self-deception. And after all, all Americans "know" instinctively that the Catholic Church MUST be wrong, don't they? We "know" that submission to authority is just wrong, we "know" the Catholic Church was incomparably cruel and oppressive in the middle ages, we "know" that the superstitious Catholic Church tried to suppress real Christians, we "know" the Catholic Church hates the Bible, we "know" that Roman inventions crept into the Church after a few hundred years, and that there was no Pope until Constantine created the Roman Catholic Church.

But do we really know these things, or is this just what we have been led to believe? Examine with me this (somewhat long) set of quotes from the bishop's letter:
"For what does any one profit me, if he commends me, but blasphemes my Lord, not confessing that He was [truly] possessed of a body? But he who does not acknowledge this, has in fact altogether denied Him, being enveloped in death."

"Let no man deceive himself. Both the things which are in heaven, and the glorious angels, and rulers, both visible and invisible, if they believe not in the blood of Christ, shall, in consequence, incur condemnation. "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." [Matthew 19:12] Let not [high] place puff any one up: for that which is worth all is faith and love, to which nothing is to be preferred. But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. They have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty."

"They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that you should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils."

"See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid."
The first two paragraphs could well have been any traditional Christian. But what about the next two paragraphs?

Is this bishop not a Catholic bishop? He asserts that the Eucharist (or Communion) is the flesh of Christ (in another translation, "the self-same body..."), the very flesh that the Father "raised up." He insists that the believer follows his bishop. He calls the true church "the catholic church." These are peculiarly Catholic things. Other churches have bishops, but they would not ascribe this kind of power to them, and other churches do not teach that Communion is the flesh of Jesus Christ.

Who was this bishop? When did he live? Was he from 1500 AD? 1000 AD?

What shocked me was that this quote was from the Epistle to Smyrnaeans, written by Ignatius, fourth bishop of Antioch, around 113 AD. He was martyred during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan, who reigned from 98-117 AD. That means he wrote this within 25 years of the death of the Apostle John. He was neither obscure, nor a heretic. He was well respected in the early Church. As you see from the quote, he was someone who fought early heresies, here attacking Docetism, the belief that Jesus was not truly human (thus denying the reality of his death and resurrection).

Further reading of such early Christians supports the idea that there were only two kinds of Christians: Those who were united to their bishops and carried peculiarly Catholic beliefs, and those dissidents (heretics) who denied some fundamental aspect of Christian doctrine (and thus weren't truly Christian at all).

Now it seems to me that there are a few ways to view this information. One is the conspiracy theory view: The reason we only have the writings of Catholics and heretics during the early Church is because the Catholic Church destroyed the records of the Protestant-like True Christians (Mormons, Muslims, and other groups rely even more heavily on this theory, saying that even the Bible was altered). But if this were the case, then why are so many gnostic writings and other documents which conflict with Catholic teaching still in existence? Why were only the Protestant documents destroyed? Why would God not preserve some record of this True Church?

A second Protestant view goes something like this: The Catholic Church was the only Christian Church for some time, but over time they grew further and further away from the truth, so eventually God had to inspire the reformers to set the truth of the scriptures free again. Of course this view doesn't hold up as well if the modern Catholic Church holds doctrines compatible with the early Christian views, and Protestants deny the beliefs of these early Christians.

Another way to view the information is simpler: The Catholic Church is the same Church as that of the early Christians. It has certainly grown, as Christ said it would, "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed[...]. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches."[Matt 13:31-32] This Church is still united, and orthodoxy can still be found reliably by listening to her bishops.

Of course this would not have been enough to convince me the Catholic Church was right. I have not sought here to answer every question about the Church. But on the off chance that early church history is not covered up by conspiracy, but is exactly how it seems, should we not give the Catholic Church some consideration? Should we not be moved by the possibility that our Lord Jesus Christ established a visible Church which the Holy Spirit uses to guide us, even if that church is composed of humans who have often committed horrible sins? Or should we be like those who disdained Christ for eating with the tax collectors?

With this example in mind, doesn't it seem likely that what we "know" about the Catholic Church is wrong? Couldn't these things be like the things that secular modernists "know" about Christianity? They just "know" Christians hate everyone else and want everyone to go to hell, they "know" there's no such thing as miracles, they "know" we hate science, and that somehow science disproves religion, and they "know" that morality is relative.

Perhaps it is different to think we know about something, and to actually know it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Catholic Justification

I just finished reading Karl Keating's The Usual Suspects: Answering Anti-Catholic Fundamentalists. I liked the way he summarized the Catholic view of Justification, so I'll share it with you:
"The Council [of Trent] says we obtain [justification] by grace through faith, not good works, [but] our sanctification (the word commonly used by Protestants) is increased by our good works after we are justified and... that initial justification is preserved by our good works (because by doing good works we stay away from evil works, sins, through which we can forfeit justification)."
This may be a simplification, but sometimes it's good to know the simple version, partially so we can quickly explain our beliefs to others, and also so we ourselves don't get too confused when we look into the issue in greater depth. He also explains that:
"Even Fundamentalists talk about a process of sanctification that comes after justification, yet the passage from Trent has been misconstrued to mean something that the Catholic Church does not teach, but Fundamentalists think she teaches."
What these Fundamentalists think she teaches is expressed by former priest, Bart Brewer:
"The Catholic Gospel, the Roman Catholic Gospel, is absolutely a Gospel of works."
Of course, we all know that Mr. Brewer is mistaken. How he missed this fact in his years of seminary is one of those great unanswered questions, but just make sure to remember this quick explanation of this fundamental Catholic teaching, and you'll never end up so confused as he.