Up the Tiber without a paddle

From Triablogue. Not comprehensive by any stretch, but very insightful.


We can know God.

[The Bible] insists on beginning with a Creator whose being is utterly different from the being of creation. Second, it argues that because of this he can be known by his creatures. While, of course, we can never know God exhaustively, yet we may know him truly, in his essence. Even unbelievers know God, though they try to suppress the knowledge of him (Rom 1:18-21). Paul reminds his Roman readers that they ought never say, "who will ascend to heaven?" (to bring Christ down) or "Who will descend into the abyss?" (to bring Christ up from the dead), because he is as near to us as the word of faith (Rom. 10:6-11). The essence of God is that he is both free and owerful. In freedom, not obligation, and usinghis great power, he chose to make the world. He has structured it so that everyone made as God's image can know him, in his essence. Similarly, he decided to redeem the world, through his dying, risen Son. He structured redemption so that his people may know their God, in his essence as Savior.
From Modern Reformation Magazine, March/April 2006: "Proving God's Existence: Beside the Point?" (pgs 8-10)


Catholic Scholars agree there was discontinuity

The Catholic historian Klaus Schatz, in his work on papal primacy, affirms that Catholic and non-Catholic Scholars agree that:
The further question whether there was any notion of an enduring office beyond Peter's lifetime, if posed in purely historical terms, should probably be answered in the negative. That is, if we ask whether the historical Jesus, in commissioning Peter, expected him to have successors, or whether the author of the Gospel of Matthew, writing after Peter's death, was aware that Peter and his commission survived in the leaders of the Roman community who succeeded him, the answer in both cases is probably "no."...

If we ask in addition whether the primitive Church was aware, after Peter's death, that his authority had passed to the next bishop of Rome, or in other words that the head of the community at Rome was now the successor of Peter, the Church's rock and hence the subject of the promise in Matthew 16:18-19, the question, put in those terms, must certainly be given a negative answer....

If one had asked a Christian in the year 100, 200, or even 300 whether the bishop of Rome was the head of all Christians, or whether there was a supreme bishop over all the other bishops and having the last word in questions affecting the whole Church, he or she would certainly have said no.
Following on my earlier post from Peter Lampe, that "There was no "bishop" in Rome for nearly the first 200 years of the church’s existence," it should be clear that this statement is considered by most of the people who study this issue, to be a fairly accurate one.

Now, growing up Catholic, I was taught that there was a line of popes, extending back to Peter, and that this was the reason why the Catholic Church was the "one true Church." Even very recently, such figures as the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and Archbishop Donald Wuerl speak of "Pope Clement" or "Pope St. Clement" as if this were a historical certainty.

Perhaps Balthasar can be excused for this anachronism in his 1974 work. He may not have been aware of work done by individuals such as Lampe and Schatz. However, for Bishop Wuerl, writing an educational work and citing "Pope Saint Clement of Rome" in his 2001 catechism "The Catholic Way," without so much as a hint of the recent (Catholic) historical studies which would "certainly" deny the existence of a "Pope Saint Clement," goes beyond disingenuity into actual dishonesty.

This dishonesty extends to what is known as "Catholic theology," which has learned not to rely on history in any meaningful way. I'll have more to say about this in future entries.


Historical discontinuity from the foundation

The following selection is from Peter Lampe, “From Paul to Valentinus” “Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries”. Lampe is a professor of New Testament Theology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.

Lampe describes this work as, “a city-oriented historical study”. He uses a variety of material to give a historical picture of Christianity in the city of Rome during the first two centuries. These include literary materials, epigraphical and archaeological, which often become illuminating only in combination. Prominent here are Acts 28, Romans 15 and 16, the letters of 1 Clement, Ignatius to the Romans, and Shepherd of Hermas. All of these mention individuals in Rome (which he cross-references with other sources, including secular history and archaeology), practices, attitudes of the people there. The following is from Chapter 41, the conclusion of his book, “Fractionation, Monarchical Episcopacy, and Presbyterial Governance.”
Thesis: The fractionation in Rome favored a collegial presbyterial system of governance and prevented for a long time, until the second half of the second century, the development of a monarchical episcopacy in the city. Victor (c. 189-99) was the first who, after faint-hearted attempts by Eleutherus (c. 175-89), Soter (c. 166-75), and Anicetus (c. 155-66), energetically stepped forward as monarchical bishop and (at times, only because he was incited from the outside) attempted to place the different groups in the city under his supervision or, where that was not possible, to draw a line by means of excommunication. Before the second half of the second century there was in Rome no monarchical episcopacy for the circles mutually bound in fellowship. It would be presumptuous here to wish to write again a history of the ecclesiastical offices that are mentioned especially in 1 Clement and Hermas. My concern is to describe the correlation between fractionation and one factor of ecclesiastical order, the monarchical episcopate. This bridge should be illuminated. What happens across the bridge in the field of history of ecclesiastical offices can only be here briefly sketched – and perhaps motivate one to further investigation.
The reason this is important is because of the historical claims of the papacy. In the document Dominus Iesus, Joseph Ratzinger, the present pope, wrote this
The Catholic faithful are required to profess that there is an historical continuity — rooted in the apostolic succession53 — between the Church founded by Christ and the Catholic Church: “This is the single Church of Christ... which our Saviour, after his resurrection, entrusted to Peter's pastoral care (cf. Jn 21:17), commissioning him and the other Apostles to extend and rule her (cf. Mt 28:18ff.), erected for all ages as ‘the pillar and mainstay of the truth' (1 Tim 3:15).
Now, if we are talking about “all ages,” then this early age, from say, 60-180, there was no “monarchical bishop” in Rome. There was no "bishop" in Rome for nearly the first 200 years of the church’s existence.

Catholicism has various ways of dealing with this. But it is my contention that none of these meet the burden of proof necessary to substantiate the tremendous claims that the papacy has made about itself over the centuries. I will discuss these responses in future entries.

Here is what Vatican I said about the papacy:
We therefore teach and declare that, according to the testimony of the Gospel, the primacy of jurisdiction over the universal Church of God was immediately and directly promised and given to blessed Peter the Apostle by Christ the Lord…
This is called “a clear doctrine of Holy Scripture as it has been ever understood by the Catholic Church...”

Remember the papacy is an “office” which is said to be "infallible" in its teaching on “faith and morals”. And this is certainly a matter of "faith". According to Dr. Ludwig Ott, in his work "Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma" (first published in 1952 and later republished in 1974), "According to Christ's ordinance, Peter is to have successors in his Primacy over the whole Church and for all time." This is a matter of dogma for Catholics to believe. "All time" includes "all times," including that first 200 years of the church.

This statement is not theological opinion. Catholic theology holds to a variety of levels of theological certainty. This particular belief has been held "de fide", which means it has been defined by a solemn judgment of the faith of the Pope or of a General Council.

There is a fundamental, foundational era in the Church, when this “primacy of jurisdiction” was not only unknown. The elements of it did not exist. Contrary to what Ratzinger said in Dominus Iesus, there was a clear historical discontinuity during the earliest years of the church.


A mixed bag; but the ultimate flaws are ultimate

What I've said just below should not be taken to mean that I think Roman Catholicism is totally bad. There are many good aspects, both historically, and today.

Just as a small personal example, I used to love to go and sit in an empty Catholic church and pray. The sense of worshipfulness was quite striking. Very much in Catholicism lends itself well to personal devotion.

Historically, the Catholic Church contributed much, first to the preservation of culture (following the fall of Rome), and later, to the development and growth of the culture that we know now. Universities, hospitals, our legal system -- in fact, many of the good aspects of western culture -- all were shaped in good ways by the Catholic Church. Today, as American Christians, whether you are a conservative Protestant or Catholic, you applaud the naming of Catholics like John Roberts or Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, for example.

However, I believe that Catholicism is flawed at a very fundamental level. Writing in the preface of his "Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity," the Anglican bishop Paul Barnett says he was "surprise(d) at the degree to which the story of the New Testament can be recovered by standard methods of research and analysis." (pg. 10).

On the other hand, a close examination of such Catholic doctrines about such fundamentals as the papacy and Marian doctrines and dogmas do not support this kind of examination, and in fact, these doctrines, as expressed historically by the Catholic Church, are in full retreat.

Over the next several weeks and months, I hope to explore the kinds and extents of these various retreats in more detail.


My main thesis

My main idea for this blog will be "The Roman Catholic Church is not what it says it is." Of course, "what it says it is" is found both in the Vatican II document, "Lumen Gentium," and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I'll provide links to these, and expand on these ideas over time. (This is a longer term project for me, remember.)

But the fact that Catholicism is still "a force" within Christianity, ("the premier church among churches," as Neuhaus has said) and yet it does not represent what is "true Christianity." I believe this and I will make a case for it. The "true Christianity" that may be found in Catholicism is buried in there somewhere, but that's the point: it's buried under useless, anachronistic accretions that serve more to uphold the power structure than to promote Christ to the world.

Which brings me to another thesis: This disparity that I am talking about ("the Catholic Church is not what it says it is") hinders Christianity in the world. It hinders Christ in the world today.

And as long as I am making thesis statements, I will say further that Protestantism (conservative, evangelical protestantism) will do well by reflecting on what has happened to Catholicism), and a remembrance of where Protestantism came from will serve Christianity well into the future.

I don't say any of this in a vacuum. These are longstanding, core beliefs that I have developed over a lifetime of being concerned about these kinds of things. I grew up Catholic, the son of a woman who was and is a very devout Catholic. I left the Catholic Church as a teen, for very good reasons. I came back in my early 20's because of an invitation from some very devout people. I even thought I wanted to become a priest, and, captivated by the life of Francis of Assisi, I looked very closely at the possibility that I might become a Franciscan.

Not long after that phase in my life, I married (within the Catholic Church), and eventually I have had six children (now ages from 2 up to 18). I was the guy in the front pew who always had two small children in his arm, and often had to walk out, red-faced, because one or more of them was fussing in some way.

But even with my convert's view of Catholicism ("there are things wrong, but there is plenty here that lends itself to the worship of the True God"), I came to the conclusion that I could not honestly teach my children that "The Catholic Church is what it says it is."

As I mentioned above, I will go into a lot more detail about that decision. But that is my thesis in a nutshell, and one of the major functions of this little blog will be to defend it.


A response to "The God Delusion"

Since I've mentioned the Wired Magazine article, I should point out that Steve Hays of Triablogue has responded to Richard Dawson's book, "The God Delusion," at length.


"What in the world is God doing?"

As I write this morning, I have the latest issue of “Wired” magazine sitting on my desk. The front cover features “The New Atheism. No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science.” The subtitle is “Inside the crusade against religion.”

I haven’t read the article. But given the admissions that I’ve already made below, I realize that I am in conflict with major trends in the world today. (I also know that there are those who would agree with me.)

As a Christian, I am mandated to consider myself a “peacemaker”:
7Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
(Matt 5-7, NIV)
This is one major source of conflict where some sort of understanding needs to be reached. But there are others: The conflict in Iraq. The greater conflict – “the clash of civilizations” with Islam. The political conflict here in the US.

Given that I believe “the Bible alone is the Word of God,” given that I believe God exists and not only exists like the Deist “watchmaker,” but that he exists as John Calvin described him (as Jesus described: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.” (Matt 10:29) – this is a God who is Sovereign, who is intimately involved with orchestrating the minute happenings in this world – I think it is fair to ask, “What in the world is God doing?”

Not only is it fair to ask that question. It is mandatory to come up with good answers. For the sake of responding to Wired’s “pure scientists. For the sake of Iraq, for the sake of “civilization,” for the sake of the US.

For the sake of my children, who will grow up in this world.


The Turning Point of Modern History

Why the Reformation? Church historian Phillip Schaff writes about that as the introduction to his Volume 7 discussing the German Reformation:

§ 1. The Turning Point of Modern History.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century is, next to the introduction of Christianity, the greatest event in history. It marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times. Starting from religion, it gave, directly or indirectly, a mighty impulse to every forward movement, and made Protestantism the chief propelling force in the history of modern civilization.

The age of the Reformation bears a strong resemblance to the first century. Both are rich beyond any other period in great and good men, important facts, and permanent results. Both contain the ripe fruits of preceding, and the fruitful germs of succeeding ages. They are turning points in the history of mankind. They are felt in their effects to this day, and will be felt to the end of time. They refashioned the world from the innermost depths of the human soul in its contact, with the infinite Being. They were ushered in by a providential concurrence of events and tendencies of thought. The way for Christianity was prepared by Moses and the Prophets, the dispersion of the Jews, the conquests of Alexander the Great, the language and literature of Greece, the arms and laws of Rome, the decay of idolatry, the spread of skepticism, the aspirations after a new revelation, the hopes of a coming Messiah. The Reformation was preceded and necessitated by the corruptions of the papacy, the decline of monasticism and scholastic theology, the growth of mysticism, the revival of letters, the resurrection of the Greek and Roman classics, the invention of the printing press, the discovery of a new world, the publication of the Greek Testament, the general spirit of enquiry, the striving after national independence and personal freedom. In both centuries we hear the creative voice of the Almighty calling light out of darkness.


Maybe I'm a bit ahead of myself, but the year 2017 will be the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and I believe this anniversary and the years leading up to it will provide an ideal opportunity for Christians to pause and reflect on where they've come from, as a way of refocusing on where we need to go for the future.

I do not write from a position of strength. That is, I am not going to make bold arguments. This blog is more likely than not going to be an infrequent, longer-term project on my part. I may ask more questions than I answer. I've studied theology and church history from an informal but decidedly cncerned level. I'm a professional, I have a good job, I have a wife and six kids who mean more to me than anything. I'm a former Catholic who has decided that I can't accept Catholic claims to authority. Papal claims, especially, but Catholic generally.

As for my personal theology, I'm evangelical, and I lean toward Reformed. I'm convinced that God exists, that Jesus lived, performed many miracles, died for our sins, and was raised from the dead for our sins according to the Scriptures. I believe that the Bible alone is the Word of God.